Apple overhauls Siri to address privacy concerns and improve performance

Apple will no longer send Siri requests to its servers, the company has announced, in a move to substantially speed up the voice assistant’s operation and address privacy concerns.

The new feature comes two years after the Guardian revealed that Apple staff regularly heard confidential details while carrying out quality control for the feature.

Apple’s worldwide developers conference (WWDC) was told on Monday that, from this autumn onwards, when new versions of the company’s operating systems are released, Siri will process audio “on device” – meaning that, for the majority of queries, no recording will need to be uploaded to Apple’s servers.

“With on-device speech recognition, the audio of users’ requests is processed right on their iPhone or iPad by default,” an Apple spokesperson said. “This addresses one of the biggest privacy concerns for voice assistants, which is unwanted audio recording. For many requests, Siri processing is also moving on device, enabling requests to be processed without an internet connection, such as launching apps, setting timers and alarms, changing settings or controlling music.”

In 2019, the Guardian revealed that Siri “graders” regularly heard confidential information as part of their job assessing the voice assistant’s responses for quality. The company apologised and, after a three-month pause to the grading programme, allowed users to opt out of having their speech analysed by humans.

Apple is also introducing new privacy features across its products that could reignite a battle between the company and the advertising industry.

Mail Privacy Protection will impact email marketers, by blocking emailers from tracking whether users have opened an email, and masking IP addresses so they cannot be tracked around the internet, while a new feature in Apple’s iCloud subscription service – renamed iCloud+ – will encrypt all traffic and route it through the company’s servers, to completely mask the user’s identity from the sites they are browsing.

Zoom, Google Meet and Microsoft Teams will also face renewed competition from Apple, thanks to a raft of updates to FaceTime that make it suitable for a post-pandemic world. Users of Apple’s video chat service can now view members of a group chat in a normal grid view, and intelligently blur their backgrounds using technology similar to the company’s “portrait mode”. More importantly, FaceTime group calls can now include participants on Windows and Android, and can be set up with a simple link shared via text message or email.

For iPhone users, one of life’s little annoyances may soon be coming to an end, with an update to the way notifications are handled in iOS. When iOS 15 is released this autumn, users will have the option of bundling non-urgent notifications together to be delivered at the same time every day, sorted in order of importance. That should mean that urgent notifications, such as those from other people, do not get drowned out.

Apple’s WWDC took place against a backdrop of an uneasy hostility between the company and some of its most devoted app developers. In testimony to courts and regulators around the world, some argue, Apple has downplayed the importance of individual developers and sought to present itself as responsible for their success.

“Without our apps, the iPhone has little value to most of its customers today,” wrote Marco Arment, creator of Overcast and Instapaper. “To bully and gaslight developers into thinking that we need to be kissing Apple’s feet for permitting us to add billions of dollars of value to their platform is not only greedy, stingy and morally reprehensible, but deeply insulting.”

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