Apple is turning Siri audio clip review off by default and bringing it in house – gpgmail


The top line news is that Apple is making changes to the way that Siri audio review, or ‘grading’ works across all of its devices. First, it is making audio review an explicitly opt-in process in an upcoming software update. This will be applicable for every current and future user of Siri.

Second, only Apple employees, not contractors, will review any of this opt-in audio in an effort to bring any process that uses private data closer to the company’s core processes.

Apple has released a blog post outlining some Siri privacy details that may not have been common knowledge as they were previously described in security white papers.

Apple apologizes for the issue.

“As a result of our review, we realize we haven’t been fully living up to our high ideals, and for that we apologize. As we previously announced, we halted the Siri grading program. We plan to resume later this fall when software updates are released to our users — but only after making the following changes…”

It then outlines three changes being made to the way Siri grading works.

  • First, by default, we will no longer retain audio recordings of Siri interactions. We will continue to use computer-generated transcripts to help Siri improve.
  • Second, users will be able to opt in to help Siri improve by learning from the audio samples of their requests. We hope that many people will choose to help Siri get better, knowing that Apple respects their data and has strong privacy controls in place. Those who choose to participate will be able to opt out at any time.
  • Third, when customers opt in, only Apple employees will be allowed to listen to audio samples of the Siri interactions. Our team will work to delete any recording which is determined to be an inadvertent trigger of Siri.

Apple is not implementing any of these changes, nor is it lifting the suspension on the Siri grading process that it halted until the software update becomes available for its operating systems that will allow users to opt in. Once people update to the new versions of its OS, they will have the chance to say yes to the grading process that uses audio recordings to help verify requests that users make of Siri. This effectively means that every user of Siri will be opted out of this process once the update goes live and is installed.

Apple says that it will continue using anonymized computer generated written transcripts of your request to feed its machine learning engines with data, in a fashion similar to other voice assistants. These transcripts may be subject to Apple employee review.

Amazon and Google had previous revelations that their assistants were being helped along by human review of audio, and they have begun putting opt-ins in place as well.

Apple is making changes to the grading process itself as well, noting that, for example, “the names of the devices and rooms you setup in the Home app will only be accessible by the reviewer if the request being graded involves controlling devices in the home.”

A story in The Guardian in early August outlined how Siri audio samples were sent to contractors Apple had hired to evaluate the quality of responses and transcription that Siri produced for its machine learning engines to work on. The practice is not unprecedented, but it certainly was not made as clear as it should have been in Apple’s privacy policies that humans were involved in the process. There was also the matter that contractors, rather than employees, were being used to evaluate these samples. One contractor described as containing sensitive and private information that, in some cases, may have been able to be tied to a user, even with Apple’s anonymizing processes in place.

In response, Apple halted the grading process worldwide while it reviewed the process. This post and updates to its process are the result of that review.

Apple says that around 0.2% of all Siri requests got this audio treatment in the first place, but given that there are 15B requests per month, the quick maths tell us that though it is statistically insignificant, the raw numbers could be quite high.

The move away from contractors was signaled by Apple releasing employees in Europe, as noted by Alex Hearn earlier on Wednesday.

Apple is also publishing an FAQ on how Siri’s privacy controls fit in with its grading process, you can read that in full here.

The blog post from Apple and the FAQ provide some details to consumers about how Apple handles the grading process, how it is minimizing the data given to data reviewers in the grading process and how Siri privacy is preserved.


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The BBC is developing a voice assistant, code named ‘Beeb’ – gpgmail


The BBC — aka, the British Broadcasting Corporation, aka the Beeb, aka Auntie — is getting into the voice assistant game.

The Guardian reports the plan to launch an Alexa rival, which has been given the working title ‘Beeb’, and will apparently be light on features given the Corp’s relatively slender developer resources vs major global tech giants.

The BBC’s own news site says the digital voice assistant will launch next year without any proprietary hardware to house it. Instead the corporation is designing the software to work on “all smart speakers, TVs and mobiles”.

Why is a publicly funded broadcaster ploughing money into developing an AI when the market is replete with commercial offerings — from Amazon’s Alexa to Google’s Assistant, Apple’s Siri and Samsung’s Bixby to name a few? The intent is to “experiment with new programmes, features and experiences without someone else’s permission to build it in a certain way”, a BBC spokesperson told BBC news.

The corporation is apparently asking its own staff to contribute voice data to help train the AI to understand the country’s smorgasbord of regional accents.

“Much like we did with BBC iPlayer, we want to make sure everyone can benefit from this new technology, and bring people exciting new content, programmes and services — in a trusted, easy-to-use way,” the spokesperson added. “This marks another step in ensuring public service values can be protected in a voice-enabled future.”

While at first glance the move looks reactionary and defensive, set against the years of dev already ploughed into cutting edge commercial voice AIs, the BBC has something those tech giant rivals lack: Not just regional British accents on tap — but easy access to a massive news and entertainment archive to draw on to design voice assistants that could serve up beloved personalities as a service.

Imagine being able to summon the voice of Tom Baker, aka Doctor Who, to tell you what the (cosmic) weather’s like — or have the Dad’s Army cast of characters chip in to read out your to-do list. Or get a summary of the last episode of The Archers from a familiar Ambridge resident.

Or what about being able to instruct ‘Beeb’ to play some suitably soothing or dramatic sound effects to entertain your kids?

On one level a voice AI is just a novel delivery mechanism. The BBC looks to have spotted that — and certainly does not lack for rich audio content that could be repackaged to reach its audience on verbal command and extend its power to entertain and delight.

When it comes to rich content, the same cannot be said of the tech giants who have pioneered voice AIs.

There have been some attempts to force humor (AIs that crack bad jokes) and/or shoehorn in character — largely flat-footed. As well as some ethically dubious attempts to pass off robot voices as real. All of which is to be expected, given they’re tech companies not entertainers. Dev not media is their DNA.

The BBC is coming at the voice assistant concept from the other way round: Viewing it as a modern mouthpiece for piping out more of its programming.

So while Beeb can’t hope to compete at the same technology feature level as Alexa and all the rest, the BBC could nonetheless show the tech giants a trick or two about how to win friends and influence people.

At the very least it should give their robotic voices some much needed creative competition.

It’s just a shame the Beeb didn’t tickle us further by christening its proto AI ‘Auntie’. A crisper two syllable trigger word would be hard to utter…




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Amazon’s lead EU data regulator is asking questions about Alexa privacy – gpgmail


Amazon’s lead data regulator in Europe, Luxembourg’s National Commission for Data Protection, has raised privacy concerns about its use of manual human reviews of Alexa AI voice assistant recordings.

A spokesman for the regulator confirmed in an email to gpgmail it is discussing the matter with Amazon, adding: “At this stage, we cannot comment further about this case as we are bound by the obligation of professional secrecy.” The development was reported earlier by Reuters.

We’ve reached out to Amazon for comment.

Amazon’s Alexa voice AI, which is embedded in a wide array of hardware — from the company’s own brand Echo smart speaker line to an assortment of third party devices (such as this talkative refrigerator or this oddball table lamp) — listens pervasively for a trigger word which activates a recording function, enabling it to stream audio data to the cloud for processing and storage.

However trigger-word activated voice AIs have been shown to be prone to accidental activation. While a device may be being used in a multi-person household. So there’s always a risk of these devices recording any audio in their vicinity, not just intentional voice queries…

In a nutshell, the AIs’ inability to distinguish between intentional interactions and stuff they overhear means they are natively prone to eavesdropping — hence the major privacy concerns.

These concerns have been dialled up by recent revelations that tech giants — including Amazon, Apple and Google — use human workers to manually review a proportion of audio snippets captured by their voice AIs, typically for quality purposes. Such as to try to improve the performance of voice recognition across different accents or environments. But that means actual humans are listening to what might be highly sensitive personal data.

Earlier this week Amazon quietly added an option to the settings of the Alexa smartphone app to allow users to opt out of their audio snippets being added to a pool that may be manually reviewed by people doing quality control work for Amazon — having not previously informed Alexa users of its human review program.

The policy shift followed rising attention on the privacy of voice AI users — especially in Europe.

Last month thousands of recordings of users of Google’s AI assistant were leaked to the Belgian media which was able to identify some of the people in the clips.

A data protection watchdog in Germany subsequently ordered Google to halt manual reviews of audio snippets.

Google responded by suspending human reviews across Europe. While its lead data watchdog in Europe, the Irish DPC, told us it’s “examining” the issue.

Separately, in recent days, Apple has also suspended human reviews of Siri snippets — doing so globally, in its case — after a contractor raised privacy concerns in the UK press over what Apple contractors are privy to when reviewing Siri audio.

The Hamburg data protection agency which intervened to halt human reviews of Google Assistant snippets urged its fellow EU privacy watchdogs to prioritize checks on other providers of language assistance systems — and “implement appropriate measures” — naming both Apple and Amazon.

In the case of Amazon, scrutiny from European watchdogs looks to be fast dialling up.

At the time of writing it is the only one of the three tech giants not to have suspended human reviews of voice AI snippets, either regionally or globally.

In a statement provided to the press at the time it changed Alexa settings to offer users an opt-out from the chance of their audio being manually reviewed, Amazon said:

We take customer privacy seriously and continuously review our practices and procedures. For Alexa, we already offer customers the ability to opt-out of having their voice recordings used to help develop new Alexa features. The voice recordings from customers who use this opt-out are also excluded from our supervised learning workflows that involve manual review of an extremely small sample of Alexa requests. We’ll also be updating information we provide to customers to make our practices more clear.


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Google’s new version of Android Auto focuses on Assistant – gpgmail


Google is starting to roll out an updated version of its in-car platform Android Auto that aims to make it easier and safer for drivers to use.

The version, which was first revealed during Google I/O 2019, has a dark theme, new fonts and color accents, more opportunities to communicate with Google’s virtual assistant and the ability to fit wider display screens that are becoming more common in vehicles.

Android Auto, which launched in 2015, is not an operating system. It’s a secondary interface — or HMI layer — that sits on top of an operating system and brings the look and feel of a smartphone to the vehicle’s central screen. Rival Apple introduced its own in-car platform, Apple CarPlay, that same year.

Automakers, once hesitant to integrate Android Auto or Apple CarPlay into vehicles have come around. Today, Android Auto is available in more than 500 car models from 50 different brands, according to Android Auto product manager Rod Lopez.

Car owners with Android Auto support will start to see the new design over the next few weeks. However, updates will not be made to the standalone version of Android Auto, a smartphone app that gave users access to the platform even if their car wasn’t compatible to Android Auto. Google says it plans to “evolve” the standalone phone app from Android Auto to the Assistant’s new driving mode in the future.

Meanwhile, the in-car version features some important changes, notably more opportunities for drivers to use their voice — and not their hands — to interact with Android Auto. Users will notice the Google Assistant badge on Android Auto, that when tapped will provide information about their calendar, read the weather report or news.

3Android Auto Google Assistant Badge

Other new features include a new app launcher designed to let users access their favorite apps with fewer taps. A button on the bottom left of the screen launches this feature. Once deployed, users will see app icons with the most commonly used ones featured in the top row.

Android Auto has also improved its navigation, which is perhaps the most commonly used feature within the platform. Now, the navigation bar sits at the bottom of the display and allows users to manage multiple apps. This improvement means users won’t miss an exit or street while they’re listening to Spotify .

4Android Auto Media

The navigation feature also pops up as soon as the driver connects with Android Auto. If a route is already queued up on a phone, Android Auto will automatically populate the directions.

This latest version also has a new notification button — located on the bottom right corner — houses recent calls, messages and alerts. Drivers can tap the mic button or say ” “Hey Google” to have the Google Assistant help make calls, send messages and read notifications.

Google has also developed an operating system called Android Automotive OS that’s modeled after its open-source mobile operating system that runs on Linux. Instead of running smartphones and tablets, Google modified it so it could be used in cars. Polestar, Volvo’s standalone performance electric car brand, is going to produce a new vehicle, the Polestar  2, that has an infotainment system powered by Android Automotive OS.


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