A friend recently asked me, “When I don’t have internet service on my iPhone, I can’t use Siri, why is that?”
A good question. In a nutshell, Siri doesn’t actually exist on your iPhone at all. Your phone is basically just a voice recorder and command processing structure for Siri. Siri is actually located in a massive data-center in Maiden, North Carolina.
Siri works like this:
- You press your ‘Home’ button and ask a question: “What flights are above me right now?”
- Your voice is recorded into a small audio file and instantly uploaded to the data-center in NC.
- Banks of servers turn your voice into text and recognize that you are asking what flights are above your iPhone.
- The servers then send a request to your iPhone for your exact GPS position.
- Your phone then reports back your exact location to the servers in NC.
- The servers then query a special search engine called Wolfram Alpha providing it with your GPS position.
- Wolfram Alpha looks at all of the current data from the FAA and reports back any aircraft that are visible from your location (sans buildings) along with their flight numbers and altitude to the servers.
- The servers then relay the information back to your phone and you get a table displaying the data.
Of course all of this happens in a fraction of second thanks to the speed of light (or at least the speed of the data packet over the Internet).
This raises other questions: If my voice is recorded, do they keep it? How much is my privacy respected?
It all depends on how much you trust Apple’s privacy statements. Apple’s iPhone Software License Agreement clearly states “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,” further stating “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.”
According to an article published on Wired in 2013, Siri holds on to your voice recordings for six months. After which time it disassociates it with a unique number that Apple creates to represent you to the server. It then holds on to the voice clips for up to eighteen more months for testing and product improvement.
The fact is, Siri collects not only your voice, but also data that can be very personal. Some companies have NDAs (Non Disclosure Agreements) that do not allow information of you being at a specific client’s location to be relayed to anyone outside the company. Use of Siri at said locations would clearly violate that as it must be transmitted to the servers in NC.
Because of this real risk of information transmission, many company such as IBM have disabled Siri (and many other apps) on their employee’s phones as it constitutes a potential of confidential data leaving the company.
Now Apple does state that they do not associate your actual name, address, etc. with your voice data. They claim to create a random number and then associate your data with that number so that no one ever can really know your data actually belongs to you. But take it from someone who has worked in IT for a very long time, it’s not hard to cross reference it, if they want to.