If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is

Imagine a new secretarial agency that provides you with a Personal Assistant. They’re a really excellent PA. They look after your diary, place calls, make bookings, plan your travel, send messages for you, take dictation. Like all good PAs, they get to know you, so they’ll even help decide where to have dinner.

And you’ll never guess: there’s no charge!

But … at the end of each day, the PA reports back to their agency, and provides a full transcript of all you’ve said, everyone you’ve been in touch with, everything you’ve done. The agency won’t say what they plan to do with all this data, how long they’ll keep it, nor who they’ll share it with.

If you’re still interested in this deal, here’s the PA’s name: Siri.

Seriously now … Siri may be a classic example of the unfair bargain at the core of free social media. Natural language processing is a fabulous idea of course, and will improve the usability of smart phones many times over. But Siri is only “free” because Apple are harvesting personal information with the intent to profit from it. A cynic could even call it a Trojan Horse.

There wouldn’t be anything wrong with this bargain if Apple were up-front about it. In their Privacy Policy they should detail what Personal Information they are collecting out of all the voice data; they should explain why they collect it, what they plan to do with it, how long they will retain it, and how they might limit secondary usage. It’s not good enough to vaguely reserve their rights to “use personal information to help us develop, deliver, and improve our products, services, content, and advertising”.

Apple’s Privacy Policy today (dated 21 June 2010 [*]) in fact makes no mention of voice data at all, nor the import of contacts and other PI from the iPhone to help train its artificial intelligence algorithms.

I myself will decline to use Siri while the language processing is done in the cloud, and while Apple does not constrain its use of my voice data. I’ll wait for NLP to be done on the device with the data kept private. And I’d happily pay for that app.

Update 28 Nov 2011

Apple updated their Privacy Policy in October, but curiously, the document still makes no mention of Siri, nor voice data in general. By rights (literally in Europe) Apple’s Privacy Policy should detail amongst other things why it retains identifiable voice data, and what future use it plans to make of the data.