Apple Could Face a $10 Billion Fine Over Siri Eavesdropping

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Apple is facing even more scrutiny over its practices of having human contractors listen to Siri recordings, with a European data protection watchdog now investigating whether Apple’s conduct was in compliance with the requirements of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

After news broke earlier this summer that Apple had third-party contractors listening to private Siri conversations, Apple has been facing criticism and scrutiny, and even class-action lawsuits over its behaviour. While Apple has since issued a public statement and promised to clean up its act, this hasn’t stopped questions from being raised as to whether the company should have been doing this in the first place.

According to The Irish Examiner, Ireland’s Data Protection Commission is currently having discussions with Apple, seeking out further details on the company’s procedures and how they lined up with Apple’s obligations to comply with Europe’s GDPR laws.

The Irish Connection

The issue comes under Irish purview since the contractors involved were based in Cork, Ireland, via the third-party firm, Globetech, that Apple had engaged to do this work. Hundreds of these contractors are also now out of a job, as Apple has promised that only Apple employees will be involved when the Siri grading program resumes later this year.

The Data Protection Commission (DPC) is engaging with Apple to establish further details on the processing of personal data in the context of the manual transcription of audio recordings collected by their digital assistants and to establish how they believe that such processing of data is compliant with their GDPR obligations.

DPC Spokesperson

If Apple is found to be in violation of GDPR obligations, it could face penalties of up to 20 million Euros or 4% of its annual global turnover, whichever is higher. In Apple’s case, that could amount to a fine of $10 billion, based on the company’s 2018 revenue.

It was also The Irish Examiner that reported last month that employees of Cork-based Globetech, were on fixed-term contracts where they were expected to listen to more than 1,000 Siri recordings each shift, which were transcribed and graded on a number of different factors. However, one former contractor of Globetech came forward in July, telling The Guardian that contractors often heard confidential information in these recordings, including couples having sex, doctors talking with patients, or even drug deals — all generally as a result of inadvertent activations of Siri. Additional workers have also confirmed this following the termination of their contracts last week.

Apple has since promised that it will no longer retain audio recordings of Siri interactions unless users explicitly opt-in to share this data, and that those users opting in will only have their recordings graded by actual Apple employees, not third-party contractors.

Timmy Dooley, the communication spokesman for Fianna Fáil, Ireland’s governing party, has requested that Apple representatives appear before the country’s cross-party Oireachtas Communications Committee to respond to questions on the matter. The Examiner also notes that Apple’s recent statements will “be taken into account” by the Data Protection Commission in deciding whether or not Apple has lived up to its GDPR obligations.

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