Watch Out, John Malkovich…You Can’t Trust Siri!


Wired reports that IBM has banned Siri, iPhone’s voice-activated digital assistant, its headquarters network. Employees trying to use John Malkovich’s new friend will be foiled. Why? IBM CIO Jeanette Horan told MIT’s Technology Review that the company worries that conversations with Siri might be stored somewhere. And indeed they are. Siri relays everything she hears to an Apple data center in Maiden, North Carolina. What happens to it then is anybody’s guess.

Apple’s iPhone Software License Agreement warns you that you are giving up your information, just like those happy drug ads on TV warn you that their wonder drugs might cause insanity, paralysis, blindness, and genital rot. “When you use Siri or Dictation, the things you say will be recorded and sent to Apple in order to convert what you say into text,” Apple informs iPhone users. Siri also collects the names in your address book and other data. The user agreement doesn’t enlighten us as to how long all this data is stored, who sees it, or how it might be used…or sold to: “By using Siri or Dictation, you agree and consent to Apple’s and its subsidiaries’ and agents’ transmission, collection, maintenance, processing, and use of this information, including your voice input and User Data, to provide and improve Siri, Dictation, and other Apple products and services.”

I think IBM is right to be concerned, and it isn’t the first or the only one. The American Civil Liberties Union put out a warning about Siri  a couple of months ago. Attorney John Steele, proprietor of the Legal Ethics Forum, alertly warned his readers that Siri’s loose lips raises confidentiality issues for attorneys: dictating case-related confidential information into Siri might constitute a breach of ethics. And I wonder: should  Siri be covered by ethics rule 5.3, which requires  lawyers to make sure their assistants keep confidences, or  the ABA’s  new proposed 1.1, which requires lawyers to understand the technology they use sufficiently to protect their clients?

Oh, Siri, Siri.  Just when we were becoming so close!


Pointer: Legal Ethics Forum

Source: Wired

Graphic: Business Insider

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

15 thoughts on “Watch Out, John Malkovich…You Can’t Trust Siri!

  1. I think IBM, ACLU, and John Steele are all quite right to be skeptical. With the industry trending more and more into “cloud computing” (which means different things to different people, BTW), the question of how secure and how private the information you allow to be stored with an outside vendor is always at the forefront.

    Plus, it’s been a long-standing practice for service providers to collect information, claim to “own” all of it through legal agreements, and use it in ways that the people who provide the information would not want. This is how “privacy policies” have come to be a standard practice because people were putting their collective foot down.

    Having not read Siri’s specific policy (I’m not an iPhone user), I suspect that much of the policy is just related to technical requirements (i.e. if you want to say “Call Jack” and Jack is in your contacts list, the system really does need to be able to read your contacts list to get Jack’s phone number and initiate the call).

    It’s the “improve” clause that I find worrisome, because that’s a serious blank check to do anything they want with the data.

    And if you think I’m just being paranoid, remember: There’s a reason why Facebook with worth billions of dollars–and it certainly isn’t because the people who use it are paying customers.


    • The “improve” part is most likely related to how Siri takes your voice and learns your voice better each time you use it. Also, keep in mind that the iPhone doesn’t process all of the commands given to Siri. Each item you say is transmitted and processed with the server power in Apple’s data centers and the transcription is returned to the iPhone.

      So, in reality, just to make this technology work, the privacy policy must be written in this way. Unfortunately, that means that Apple basically has a blank check to do whatever they want…. (like check for the most common commands requested of Siri, that Siri can’t do.) Currently, Apple’s product is built on 95% trust and ethics. Perhaps it’s incentive enough to not destroy their product that the trust won’t be abused. Perhaps not. Only time will tell, but at least it’s not government mandated to use Siri. It’s a choice, and IBM made the correct one.

  2. How does this revelation about Siri set her apart from pretty much every other major web tool, like Facebook, YouTube, Google, or Twitter? Big Brother knows (or can easily find out) what I search for, who my friends are, what I listen to, what I download, and what I watch. There are no secrets on the internet.

  3. I’m not well-read enough to know for sure, but this must have been anticipated in dystopian science-fiction at some point: How much more willing people are to relinquish all their secrets directly to the machines when it feels just like you’re having a conversation with your closest friend.

  4. Malkovich doesn’t have a “T.”

    Also, for me, this is such a non-surprise. Apple is a huge evil company that will take any information you let loose onto it. I don’t even reproach them for it; it’s what I expect from any company of sufficient size.

  5. It is not a breech of ethics when it is clearly communicated and when the user can choose not to use it. If a lawyer is foolish enough to rely on SIRI for sensitive information well then I don’t know what to say about that. There is a price to pay for convenience and anyone who thinks that wireless communication of any kind is private, then they need a reality check.

    P.S. it’s not like IBM is an objective party here. They are after all a competitor.

  6. Pingback: SIRI | Aaron's Blog!

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