Why You Shouldn’t Worry About ‘Hey Siri’ on the iPhone 6s
Two of the new features that Apple announced for the iPhone 6s and iOS 9 raised some questions about the company’s privacy policies. While we’re all about users asking questions and staying informed about how their data is handled, this is actually an instance where you don’t need to worry. Here’s why you can upgrade to the iPhone 6s — and use Live Photos and the new “Hey Siri” feature — without feeling uneasy about your privacy and security.
Matthew Panzarino reports for TechCrunch that Apple’s privacy policies require “extra examination” when it introduces features that require data to be sent off of your iPhone. The “Hey Siri” feature, for instance, no longer requires your iPhone to be plugged in to a power source for the assistant to be listening and active, waiting for you to ask her a question. An always-on assistant raises some questions about how the data collected will be handled and transmitted. And Live Photos add what Panzarino characterizes as “a new wrinkle,” in that they are photographs with audio and motion attached.
Panzarino notes that Apple is undertaking the development of more and more advanced features — like Hey Siri and Live Photos — while challenging itself to move as little data as possible off of a user’s local device. It’s also working to avoid sharing your data with any partners, and will have to stay “solidly on the conservative side of the line” in pushing the boundaries of what its cloud-enabled services and their features can do. It will also likely continue to have to answer questions about how it’s handling users’ data and respecting their privacy.
Both Live Photos and Hey Siri have raised some questions about how Apple will protect users’ privacy. But in both cases, it doesn’t appear that you have anything to worry about, as long as you understand how the features work and what data is transmitted beyond your iPhone to make them work.
With the iPhone 6 and iOS 8, you could wake up Apple’s digital assistant by saying, “Hey Siri” — but only when your phone was plugged in to a power source. With the iPhone 6s and iOS 9, you’ll be able to activate Siri anytime with the same phrase, which means that your iPhone is always “listening” to what’s going on around it.
But users who are concerned about the potential privacy implications of the new feature will be relieved to learn that your iPhone won’t record what you’re saying, or send any information to Apple, before the feature is activated. To determine when Siri should be activated, your iPhone will continuously compare audio from the microphone against a recording of your unique way of saying “Hey Siri,” which you’ll record when you first set up your new iPhone. To activate the digital assistant, the feature requires a match both to the general Hey Siri model and to the more unique model of how you pronounce the phrase. (That will prevent other people from accidentally activating Siri on your iPhone.)
Without a match to both models, the feature isn’t activated and no audio is ever sent off of your iPhone. Panzarino explains, “Until you activate it, the patterns are matched locally, and the buffer of sound being monitored (from what I understand, just a few seconds) is being erased, un-sent and un-used — and unable to be retrieved at any point in the future.” Until Siri is activated, all of the “listening” and processing happens locally, and the listening audio will be continuously overwritten.
Once a match to both models is made, your query is sent to Apple’s servers. The query is associated with your device using a random identifier — not your Apple ID or another piece of personal information — and the information is then approved for use in improving the service. Siri is, of course, an optional feature that you opt in to during the setup of iOS 9. You can choose not to enable it. If you choose to turn off Siri after enabling it, Apple will delete the user data associated with your Siri identifier.
Live Photos, which are, by default, on in iOS 9’s Camera app, look like a regular still image until you press them. When you do, they’re animated with 1.5 seconds of audio and motion before the image was taken and 1.5 seconds afterward. Live Photos are treated like any other photo you take with your iPhone, in that they’re encrypted on your iPhone and when they’re backed up to iCloud.
Live Photos record motion before you take an image, so the Live Photos mode is recording from the moment you open the Camera app and see the Live icon at the top of the screen (when you have the mode turned on). But just as it’s continuously recording, the feature is also continuously deleting the the footage that it doesn’t need. Apple says that the recording only happens when the camera is on, and the information isn’t permanently saved until you take a photo. The pre-captured images aren’t saved to your iPhone, and they aren’t sent off of your device, either.
TechCrunch reports that Live Photos are a single 12-megapixel image paired with motion format file (likely a .mov). iOS presents them together, but they’re actually separate entities. That means that you can send a Live Photo as a still image, or even save it as a still image separately. The total size of a Live Photo varies, but Apple told TechCrunch that on average, one will take roughly the same space as two 12MP images. Live Photos don’t leave your iPhone unless you share them with someone else, or elect to use iCloud. The feature is on by default, but can easily be turned off by tapping the Live icon in the Camera app.