While Congress considers forbidding the use of TikTok in the U.S., Apple whistleblower Thomas Le Bonniec reminds us that concerns about privacy and misuse of personal data are not restricted to the Chinese social media app.
In 2019, the French whistleblower quit his job as a data analyst in a small company working for Apple in Ireland and shed light on the treatment of data by the tech giant. As an employee, Le Bonniec was mostly tasked with analyzing conversations and audio records coming from the use of Apple’s vocal assistant, Siri. The recordings were made during the active use of the tool by individuals but also during its random activations. The latter were unknown by those that were recorded and represent between 10% and 30% of all that Le Bonniec heard.
Typically, Le Bonniec had to listen to at least 1,300 conversations a day to follow the directions of his employer and went through 46,000 pieces of private information during the short two months he spent there. Overall, several hundred million recordings were made per year for just a handful of countries.
“During this period, I was able to hear everything you can imagine that someone might say in a very intimate situation,” Le Bonniec said in a new interview with FranceInfo. “I heard people speaking of their political orientation, union activities, their sexual activity and orientation, a lot about their personal situation too.”
Alarmingly, Le Bonniec also claims that Apple crossed this data over with other sources to create profiles based on other data they got from the user. If you mention your mom in a conversation, some people will be paid to find your mom in your contacts, gather information about her too, and make it as complete as possible. But this extends also to relatives, children, friends, colleagues etc.
This also means that you do not need to be using an Apple device to be tracked by Apple, only to be in contact with someone that uses one, or to be near a vocal assistant. Since 2019, Apple has developed new features of facial recognition to sort photos in your gallery based on who appears on them, without the consent of these persons. Le Bonniec, who does not own a smartphone, emphasizes that no one is fully protected with such a system that makes private life a collective question.
“You can bet that it is more probable that you have been spied on rather than you have not, and even that your data was used and analyzed at some point by Apple, even if you are not an Apple user,” Le Bonniec said.
While the whistle was blown four years ago, the regulation takes time to adapt.
“The issue is that we have agencies of data protection in Europe that are supposed to be doing this work of protection,” Le Bonniec said, “but there is a blockade at the level of the Irish agency that has been obstructing for years now on this question just as on a lot of others.”
Le Bonniec also recently appeared on the Whistleblower of the Week podcast where he discussed Big Tech’s use of restrictive non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) to muzzle whistleblowers.
After quitting for moral reasons, Le Bonniec shared the information to the media before going public. Today, he is represented by Kohn, Kohn & Colapinto and has filed complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission outlining the NDA clauses that Apple is trying to use as a gag procedure.