Google and Apple are putting a temporary ban on the practice of workers hearing the messages picked up by the companies’ smart assistants and virtual helpers.

The decision to limit listening comes after reports made by the Guardian which reveal how third-party contractors employed by Apple had overheard consumers’ amorous episodes, as well as sensitive medical information being discussed.

AI-driven smart speakers are programmed to activate when triggered by “wake” words, but they can also switch on if background noises are incorrectly understood as similar words.

In July, Google put an end to the eavesdropping following a full review into employee misconduct, while Apple has said that its global user base stands to be affected by a temporary ban on the practice. Amazon has not yet commented on the issue, though the company is known to employ workers to take notes on some personal recordings.

Each tech company has previously stated that voice recordings are used to improve the AI technology at the system core, and to improve command response accuracy.

Efforts to anonymise the command source can include voice distortion, which Google uses. However, many users have been unaware that the practice of listening to commands goes on at all.

In a recent statement, Apple said:

“We are committed to delivering a great Siri experience while protecting user privacy. While we conduct a thorough review, we are suspending Siri grading globally.”

The firm also says that an active opt-in would be in place in future, to ensure that users’ voice recordings are not included in quality grading processes without explicit consent.

In Germany, Hamburg’s data protection commissioner recently launched a probe into Google over the issue, due to the “highly risky” nature of speech-recognition services, the regulator said.

“The use of speech assistance systems must be transparent so that informed consent can be obtained from users,” stated the commissioner, Johannes Caspar.

A spokeswoman for Google said:

“We don’t associate audio clips with user accounts during the review process, and only perform reviews for around 0.2% of all clips.”


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