Siri says it is not spying on you but is Siri lying? Kathy Sundstrom looks for the answer. Picture: Paul Braven
Siri says it is not spying on you but is Siri lying? Kathy Sundstrom looks for the answer. Picture: Paul Braven

Virtual spies: How much do Siri and Co listen to you

“Hey Siri, are you spying on me?”

Ask your iPhone this question and you will get a simple, one-word answer: “no”.

But is Siri lying? And what about the other virtual assistants we’ve come to rely on for everything from telling us about the weather to contacting our friends while we are driving?

Is one of them listening more closely than the other?

Turns out, trying to work the answers to these questions is a lot more complicated.

Logically, they all need to listen. How else would they know to answer you when you summons them with the magic “wake” words?

And all your “friends” work for you and their creators who aren’t omniscient, benevolent charities. They’re businesses and you are a commodity.

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Maybe the important question for your virtual friend is “who is listening”? Is it a human or a machine? And what do they do with your conversations, some which may be secret?

The answers should lie in their terms and conditions, specifically their privacy statements.

Both Apple (Siri) and Google (hey Google) have changed their policies of having humans listen in to select conversations after public backlash. They both now have this as opt in. You can read Siri’s policy on this here. Cortana? It‘s privacy statement (which you can read here) states it “collects data from you”.

It says it uses the data to “operate our business”.

And the processing of this data includes “both automated and manual (human) methods of processing”.

Personal data from your phone or digital device is shared “with your consent” or to complete a transaction.
Personal data from your phone or digital device is shared “with your consent” or to complete a transaction.

This personal data is shared “with your consent” or to complete a transaction.

Amazon’s Alexa has a similar policy. It says “an extremely small fraction of voice recordings are manually reviewed to improve Amazon services and develop new features”. At the time of writing, you have to opt out if you don’t want this to happen.

There was no quick find as to what Samsung’s Bixby’s policy was on this. The privacy policy is here and seems at a quick glance to be similar to Alexa and Cortana.

So, when it comes to your virtual “friends” – it was hard to find a definite answer in each of the T&Cs which one was listening more closely. It is clear though some have stricter policies on who can listen is.

When it comes to your virtual “friends” – it was hard to find a definite answer in each of the T&Cs which one was listening more closely, writes Kathy Sundstrom.
When it comes to your virtual “friends” – it was hard to find a definite answer in each of the T&Cs which one was listening more closely, writes Kathy Sundstrom.

And is Siri (or the others) spying on you?

The Oxford definition defines spying as “someone who works for a government of other organisation by secretly obtaining information about enemies or competitors”.

Our virtual friends do obtain information about you and this can be shared, but while this information is hard to find, it isn’t secret.

There is also no doubt virtual assistants make life easier and, if you don’t like your information potentially being listened to by a machine or possibly a human, there are options to change how the listening happens in the device settings.

It will limit what the device can do for you though.

IDCARE’s advice when it comes to your “virtual friends” — think before you speak and be careful what you tell them. Some appear to listen more than others, but to say it’s spying is probably a little too far.

Kathy Sundstrom is a former Sunshine Coast Daily journalist who now works at identity and cyber support service IDCARE.


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