Is Siri Always Listening?

A privacy breakdown of Apple’s voice assistant

You’ve heard the rumors, and some of them are real: AmazonGoogle, and Apple workers have been listening to audio transcripts from Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri. Reprimands were issued, apologies were made. Customers now seem to have more control over their very convenient voice-activated helpers, but the question remains:

Is Siri always listening?

The answer? Technically, yes.

If a Siri equipped device (such as an iPhone, Apple Watch, or HomePod) is on and Siri is enabled, then it is listening. The microphone is detecting the surrounding sound so  it can detect when the ‘wake word’ (or ‘wake phrase’ which is by default, ‘Hey Siri’) is spoken. But these devices do not store or retain any of the audio that they detect prior to detecting the ‘wake word.’ They’re just listening to see if they’re supposed to listen. There is little risk in this.

When Siri hears the ‘wake word,’ things change. It begins actively processing everything it hears afterward, until a long pause or it is mechanically told to stop (via a button push). The details of what Siri does with what it hears after the ‘wake word’ are provided below: 

How Siri works

The first thing to know is that Siri processes most requests on the device itself, meaning the voice assistant won’t make requests or transmit data to Apple servers. Keeping this data in your device reduces the risk of a company or individual gaining access to the info. Other voice assistants, for example, Alexa and Google Assistant, contact their respective company’s servers with each request.

Siri is also unique in that your searches or activity aren’t linked to your Apple ID. Instead, they’re associated with a long string of letters and numbers, known as a ‘random identifier.’ If your Siri data somehow got out, it would be very difficult to link it to you personally.

What information and data does Siri keep?

According to Apple’s privacy policy, the company will retain your Siri request and search history for up to two years “to help Apple improve Siri.”

Apple also discloses that the transcripts of your Siri interactions may be reviewed by employees. However, this is an opt-in option, not something Apple allows by default. Apple also says that a small subset of requests that have been reviewed may be “kept beyond two years”. They don’t specify how long those requests will be kept for.

How to delete your Siri data

Apple provides directions on how to delete and turn off Siri in this support page. If you turn off Ask Siri and Dictation, Apple will also delete any Siri data associated with your random identifier. But you can also delete the request history Apple has stored within the past six months or less (this only pertains to data associated with your random identifier) and choose which apps can or cannot use or integrate with Siri.

Feature photo by Oliur on Unsplash
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