With the advent of GDPR and rising speculation over the privacy policies of companies like Huawei and Amazon – coupled with the development of ‘always listening’ devices that are now live in 14.5% of UK homes – a number that is still steadily rising as the top ‘smart home’ companies continue to release a myriad of solutions – a growing sense of distrust for the companies that create them and their motives has flourished amongst the general public.
And, as the latest revelations from Apple reveal, sceptics were right – to a degree. Despite once being considered the ‘technology company of the people’, Apple’s slow metamorphosis into just another corporate entity comparable to the likes of Amazon and IBM has led to a shift in the public’s view of its presence in their lives.
In early 2019 an article by CNN entitled ‘Amazon reportedly employs thousands of people to listen to your Alexa conversations’ confirmed what many believed that they already knew – that the retail giant actively employed a global team of workers whose sole job was to transcribe the voice commands, and any other useful information captured by its Alexa-enabled smart devices.
The Amazon workforce, which reportedly included part-time and full-time workers from several countries including the US, Costa Rica and Romania, were ordered to listen to up to 1,000 audio clips in shifts that could last up to nine hours.
The point of this data mining, according to Amazon, was to bolster Alexa’s AI by inputting the data to help the assistant comprehend more accents, queries and expand its responses. Speaking to CNN, Amazon noted that it “takes security and privacy of our customers' personal information seriously." The company said it only annotates an "extremely small number of interactions from a random set of customers,” – yet this didn’t stop one employee reportedly telling CNN that the operations were “possibly criminal”.
In the summer of 2018, members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the US sent a letter to Apple following reports that the brand’s phone and other devices, such as smart speakers and Siri-enabled tablets, had the ability to ‘eavesdrop’ on conversations. In response, Timothy Powderly, Director of Federal Government Affairs at Apple, responded with a letter distancing the company from its competitors and categorically denying the accusations. “Not all technology companies operate in the same manner – in fact, the business models and data collection and use practices are often radically different from one another,” Powderly wrote.
He stated: “The customer is not our product, and our business model does not depend on collecting vast amounts of personally identifiable information.”
However, it was revealed this week that this may not be true. The Guardian reported that more than 300 employees across Europe - whose sole job was reportedly to listen in to Siri conversations in a process known as ‘grading’ - have been let go by the tech giant after Apple announced that it was suspending the programme pending a “thorough review”.
The decision was reportedly made following widespread media reports that the team responsible for the data gathering had frequently heard confidential medical information and couples having sex, amongst other sensitive data. The ‘graders’, all of whom were employed through private contractors, were sent home on Friday; many reported being told that the abrupt end to the day was due to “technical errors”. However, contracting firms were told one week prior that the programme was due to be terminated with immediate effect, leading to “mass job losses with immediate effect”.
“I’m relieved this information came out,” one former contractor, who asked to remain anonymous due to a still-active non-disclosure agreement, told The Guardian. “Although I was involved in the work and I just lost my job. Discussions around ethics in this job was constant between workers, but we don’t know how to bring it up.”
The worker added: “Apple, recruiting through vendor companies in Ireland, take absolutely no responsibility in the employment of contractors and their treatment in work. They do what they want, and when they’re done with your project or they screw up (like what just happened), they tell your vendor company to let you go, which they do…It’s been coming at them for over a year. How could they not see this coming? Did they think about protecting their employees at all? Or just their reputation?
“We’ve all been laid off after the scandal, with no protection against this. More than 300 at once just in Cork, with no redundancy, just one week’s notice,” the worker added.