Following public outcry over workers listening to audio captured by voice assistants, Apple announced on Wednesday that it would no longer relegate the task of listening to Siri recordings to contractors, and instead, only Apple employees would review these audio clips. As a result, hundreds of contractors have reportedly lost their jobs.
In its announcement, Apple apologised for not “fully living up to our high ideals” and said it would continue to pause its practice of having workers listen to Siri recordings until “later this autumn,” after it rolls out a number of changes.
These changes include an upcoming software update that Apple says will ensure that only those who opt into this review process would have their Siri interactions listened to. The company also said, “only Apple employees will be allowed to listen to audio samples of the Siri interactions” once it resumes the practice. Finally, Apple’s in-house team will delete clips that appear to have been collected when Siri was triggered accidentally.
Apple’s initial suspension of the Siri “grading” effort followed a July 26 report from the Guardian, which revealed that Apple contractors listen in on confidential and deeply intimate recordings to improve Siri and dictation. The company has now terminated the contracts of more than 300 workers in the Cork, Ireland, facility, former workers told the Guardian. That doesn’t include other contractors sent home from other facilities throughout Europe, according to the report.
The Guardian reports that contractors in Cork were sent home on Friday, August 2—the day Apple announced it would suspend Siri grading and review its processes and a week after the Guardian’s initial report—on account of “technical errors.” They were reportedly placed on paid leave and officially terminate last week, the Guardian reports.
“I’m relieved this information came out, although I was involved in the work and I just lost my job,” a former contractor told the Guardian. “Discussions around ethics in this job was a constant between workers, but we don’t know how to bring it up.”
Apple did not yet respond to our request for comment on the reported contractor layoffs or how bringing the task of reviewing Siri recordings in-house will improve privacy for users.
While the ability to opt into this unsettling invasion of privacy is a crucial improvement to the prior reviewal process, moving the task in-house sends the message to Apple’s contractors that they were merely a second-class workforce, and that as soon as the public became aware of the ethical implications of this specific task, they were no longer of service.
“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,” a former contractor told the Guardian. “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?”
Apple isn’t unique in the tech industry in offloading some of its more unethical or upsetting tasks to a workforce with fewer labour protections and a more distant connection to powerful decisionmakers. As was the case for hundreds of Apple workers in Ireland, their abrupt termination appeared to be a product of a merciless decision that bodes best for the company’s public image.
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