All your speech belongs to Apple

Apple’s new Mountain Lion operating system is now available – but with it comes a surprising new twist to the terms and conditions for the new dictation capability. Apple gets and keeps the dictated files.

Paul Ducklin has discussed this development in the Sophos NakedSecurity blog. “When you use the keyboard dictation feature on your computer, the things you dictate will be recorded and sent to Apple to convert what you say into text,” says Apple. In other words, it is not the Mac but Apple’s cloud that does the speech conversion. This in itself is a bit surprising since every user will have his own vocal idiosyncrasies that the software must learn, and where better to do this than on the user’s own computer?

But it gets more worrying. “Your computer will also send Apple other information, such as your first name and nickname; and the names, nicknames, and relationship with you (for example, 'my dad') of your address book contacts,” adds Apple. Ducklin can see some arguments for this. “You can see why this might be useful: names are notoriously difficult to recognise and spell correctly, since they frequently don't come from the same linguistic and orthographic history as the language of which they've become part. The Australian mainland's highest point, Mount Kosciuszko, is a lofty example.”

Apple says it will ‘disassociate’ the user from the files – but Ducklin wonders how speech transcripts containing personal information can be anonymized. Apple adds that “You can choose to turn off the dictation feature at any time...” and Apple will delete your user data and recent voice inputs. “Older voice input data that has been disassociated from you may be retained for a period of time...”

“I'm not entirely comforted by that,” says Ducklin. “How long is ‘a period of time’? And, more significantly, how is a transcript of your dictation - in which you might very well mention all sorts of personal stuff, such as your own name, your employer, your mortgage lender, and much more, ‘disassociated from you’?


The moral of this tale? “Always read the small print,” said Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos. “The dictation feature in Mountain Lion is a clever technology but I suspect it will prove useless for the vast majority of people. You can only speak to your computer in chunks of about 30 seconds or so, before it has to go away and upload what you said to Apple's servers,” he told Infosecurity. “That’s not exactly a natural way to communicate, and so the dictation feature has limited use for most people and I suspect is nothing more than a novelty for most.”

However, he added, “testing that novelty does mean that you are sharing your address book with a large corporation - and you should ask yourself whether that is really wise or worth it.”

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