Apple Whistleblower Thomas Le Bonniec

A Brave New World Whistleblower

Photo courtesty of Joris Van Gennip

Parijs, Frankrijk, 17/05/20 | Portret van de Franse klokkenluider Thomas le Bonniec. De voormalige Apple-medewerker komt naar voren over grootschalig afluisteren door Apple om gegevens te verzamelen met Siri. Foto: Joris van Gennip

Thomas Le Bonniec was born in Paris, France. He attained a master’s degree in Sociology at Sorbonne University wanting to develop his ability to “Have a critical mind, the necessity of being able to question whatever is put in front of you and the ability to do so properly.” Sociology, according to Le Bonniec, “gives you the ability to understand, to have methodical, critical thinking.” He graduated in September 2018 and in March of 2019 was contacted for a freelance contractor position and was sent a job profile in Ireland as a data analyst. The offer had decent pay and Le Bonniec was happy to relocate. After interviewing, he was informed he would be working for Apple under a contractor, Globe Technical Services (GTS). Apple needed a large workforce to work on Siri, a digital personal assistant, integrated within Apple device operating systems, which uses machine learning and natural speech to answer questions and return search information. Apple has revealed that Siri fulfills more than 25 billion requests each month.

Le Bonniec had no prior experience with Apple and was excited for the opportunity of a well-paid position in another country. He arrived in Cork, Ireland, in May 2019 with the understanding he would be working on French language projects. He was never informed prior to signing a contract and non-disclosure agreement that he would be working on actual recordings processed by Siri. Le Bonniec found out at his Apple introduction that he “was going to work on actual recordings of people who were talking to and around the vocal assistant.” His job was to work on sensitive recordings, listening to a recording, compare it to a transcript, and add details about the information he heard. He listened to several hundred recordings a day, “corrected whatever needed to be corrected, transcribed whatever needed to be transcribed, and identified the things that were important in the recordings and then the day was over.”

Siri’s artificial intelligence needed humans “tending to it” and Le Bonniec and the other workers were the “human cogs” in the machine because the machine does not understand a “bunch of things.” The microphone must be open all the time, with the machine understanding the activation word. That means it is always listening in, not necessarily recording, but always listening in. There were several recordings when people were talking “in or around Siri” and the recording was clearly made without the “knowledge or consent of the user.”

It is hard to understand why Siri is recording without the activation word, but it happens. The project Le Bonniec worked on had thousands of workers, and it had been active for five or six years at least. Projects were implemented in all languages and taken into consideration were local and regional variations of the languages. There were “tens of thousands of people” who were engaged in the same kind of project as Le Bonniec, and “hundreds of millions, if not billions, of recordings had been gathered.”

To improve Siri, according to Apple, there must be human labor listening to recordings that according to Le Bonniec “had to be hidden.” Apple did not want to admit that their technical marvel or wonder called Siri is not artificial intelligence, but an artifact. Siri was originally introduced as a standalone iOS app by Siri Inc. Apple bought the company in April 2010, and the feature was integrated within iOS dating to version 5, after which the feature was steadily rolled into Apple’s other platforms, including watchOS, tvOS and macOS. The platform now supports some 20 languages in dozens of countries.

Le Bonniec noted that Apple claims it is just looking to improve Siri, but there are other agendas which is the procurement of very sensitive, private, and personal data which may then be monetized more than a few ways, like selling the information to other companies or Apple capitalizing on the information they gather. Siri allows Apple to possess huge amounts of data concerning how people behave, what they are thinking and where their sensibilities lay. Apple is not alone in employing human oversight of its automatic voice assistants. Amazon and Google also employ harvesters of human data.

As for the process itself, Le Bonniec stated that the Siri recordings were sent to servers which were then packaged into one thousand hours packets and placed on Apple’s internal internet. There were hundreds of thousands of workers working on the packets, and the recordings were reviewed one by one. Audio boxes on computers allowed a worker to scroll the recording and make corrections. There was a transcript made by Siri and the corrected version of the transcript was transcribed by the workers. There was an expectation that thirteen hundred recordings would be done in a shift.

Le Bonniec found the work boring and recognized the work as a massive project with new people and monitors coming in every week. When Le Bonniec was working, there were around eighty workers in his area, and the project experienced a high turnover. Le Bonniec noted “all over the world, people had their private life recorded by Apple up to the most intimate and sensitive details. Enormous amounts of personal data were collected, stored and analyzed by Apple in an opaque way.” Apple also “cozied up” to China to establish offices there.

Le Bonniec stated that Apple hopes to totally automate Siri in the future. The information gathered by Siri gives rise to a system in which Apple can “monetize a person’s needs or desires.” Le Bonniec advised that Apple is spying on a massive level, “profiting off people.” Apple is not the only company using personal information, Google, Amazon, and Facebook also gather data in questionable ways. Le Bonniec also noted how the programming of Siri resulted in racism and misogyny in the program. Algorithms are constructed by humans whose biases are ingrained.

The next step in the harvesting of personal information is the manipulation of people to maximize profits. This can be accomplished by mass surveillance, which Siri accomplishes. How sensitive is the information gathered by the recordings? Le Bonniec answers that question by stating that the most sensitive information you can think of is recorded and heard by data analysts. People having sex, hiding bank accounts, information about children, discussions of illnesses, people plagiarizing, political leanings, union affiliations: what Le Bonniec ranged in topic. The recordings “were not limited to the users of Apple devices, but also involved relatives, children, friends, colleagues and whoever could be recorded…the system recorded everything: names, addresses, messages, searches, arguments, background noises, films and conversations.” Le Bonniec heard “people talking about their cancer, referring to dead relatives, religion, sexuality, pornography, politics, school, relationships, or drugs” with no intent to activate Siri. “It is like a spy in your pocket,” Le Bonniec noted about the iPhone, and surveillance conducted in houses by Siri.

Le Bonniec stated that the manipulation of data can be easily seen in the Cambridge Analytica case where an app harvested the data of up to 87 million Facebook profiles. Cambridge Analytica used the data to provide analytical assistance to the 2016 presidential campaigns of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.

Le Bonniec stated that other people did blow the whistle on Apple before him, but he was the first one who came forward allowing his name to be used. Le Bonniec stated that people become “numb” when processing the recordings, but there was a recording that was the last straw. It was a pedophile and Apple did not appear to share the information with law enforcement. Le Bonniec notified his superiors, they did nothing. Le Bonniec had enough, and left Apple in July 2019.

Le Bonniec contacted three newspapers and shared the information concerning the privacy and security concerns. In February 2020, Le Bonniec allowed his name to be revealed in the media, not wanting to be gagged by Apple. In May 2020 Le Bonniec wrote a letter to the European National Data Protection Authorities, the European Data Protection Board, the European Data Protection Supervisor, the Lichtenstein, Swiss, Norwegian, and Icelandic relevant authorities advising them of the massive violation “of the privacy of millions of citizens that I have witnessed in the course of my work assignment for Apple.”

Although Le Bonniec and other anonymous whistleblowers raised significant privacy and security concerns within the virtual assistant Siri, it does not appear that a proper investigation was conducted, or action taken. Le Bonniec realizes that he is engaged in a true battle between David and Goliath, but he is not prepared to leave the arena of battle. The stakes are too high and Le Bonniec plans to continue sounding the alarm. He has the ability to understand, and the critical thinking skills that make him a Brave New World Whistleblower.

Read: Le Bonniec’s May 20th, 2020 letter to the European National Data Protection Authorities

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