New iPad feature 'Dictation' sends/stores private data to Apple servers

Summary:Dictation is one of the key features of the new iPad; however, using it requires more than meets the eye. Read all about it in this post.

After spending a solid weekend with the new iPad, I finally set my sights on one of the noted features: Dictation.

What I've come to learn about Dictation is that it requires more from me to use than I'm comfortable with Apple requesting. Thankfully, they're upfront about some of the data they collect; however, their intentions are vague at best, and they use some rather loose verbiage, which I will cover in a bit.

To start, Apple's marketing of this feature is slightly misleading. Take a look at what Apple says about Dictation on the new iPad features page:

So simple, right? Just buy your new iPad, press the Dictation button, talk, press it again, then you're all set with your speech-to-text conversion! Well, unfortunately, Dictation is a feature bound by the following fine-print limitation (which can be found in light-gray at the bottom of the new iPad features page):

"Some features require a Wi-Fi connection."

I found that to be the case after enabling Dictation for the first time and being presented with the following dialogue box:

"Information like" is so vague and facile, is it not? Anyway, I thought to myself, "If this is true, then I wonder what happens if I have Dictation enabled but Wi-Fi disabled." Lo and behold, the Dictation key next to the space bar completely disappears. Dictation is fully disabled and non-functional if you aren't connected to the Internet. I presume a 4G connection will suffice in lieu of Wi-Fi, but I cannot verify that at the moment since I don't have a 4G-capable iPad.

Out of curiosity at this point, I went to disable Dictation and was met with the following dialogue box:

That's good news, right? At least you can opt-out of Dictation and have Apple delete everything they've stored from you on their servers... or can you? Back on the settings page for Dictation, there's a link underneath that says "About Dictation and Privacy:"

When tapping on that link, a form appears and states -- amongst other things -- the following (bold and italicized emphases by me):

[T]he things you dictate will be recorded and sent to Apple to convert what you say into text. Your device will also send Apple other information, such as your first name and nickname; the names, nicknames, and relationship with you (e.g., "my dad") of your address book contacts; and song names in your collection (collectively, your "User Data"). All of this data is used to help the dictation feature understand you better and recognize what you say. It is not linked to other data that Apple may have from your use of other Apple services.

...

If you turn off Dictation, Apple will delete your User Data, as well as your recent voice input data. Older voice input data that has been disassociated from you may be retained for a period of time to generally improve Dictation and other Apple products and services. This voice input data may include audio files and transcripts of what you said and related diagnostic data, such as hardware and operating system specifications and performance statistics.

That's an interesting collection of vague verbiage and revealing details! Just how/when does Apple disassociate voice input data from a user, and for exactly how long do they keep it? Also, to update my Twitter feed or leave myself a note to pick up some coffee, Apple needs to collect all of my "User Data?" I understand that it needs to learn what I mean by "paw-paw" if that's what I call my grandfather, but why not wait until I have a reason to tell Apple that Dictation has done a shoddy job before just going ahead and uploading all of my "User Data" to store on their servers? And what about "OS specifications?" Will Apple look to see if I've jailbroken my iPad? I wouldn't be in a good position warranty-wise if my "User Data" happened to be tied to such information.

As it so happens, the first time you fire up your new 3rd-generation iPad, one of the setup screens covers everything I showed in screen shots above:

In my case, however, I simply chose not to enable the feature at the time of setup. To be honest, I was initially under the impression that Dictation was a built-in feature that I could use regardless of if I was connected to the Internet or not. As we see, though, Dictation is simply a fraction of Siri's capabilities, yet a large part of Siri's server-based functionality and privacy facets.

As I stated in my "7 critiques of the new iPad" gallery, I don't quite understand why Apple didn't just completely implement Siri in the new iPad -- especially since they have 4G-capable models, and, in their new iPad promo video, they show people using the iPad as a camera while traveling, etc. At that rate, why not give us Siri completely? Is it because Siri is still in beta or something? I mean, don't get me wrong; I'm not upset that I can't tell my iPad to call me "Rock God" or whatever, but Dictation feels so empty now after realizing the privacy trade-off is the same as Siri on a device that could use Siri just as well as an iPhone. Maybe that's just me, though.

To note, I'm not trying to fear-monger here. No, I don't think Apple plans to do anything malicious with whatever "User Data" it collects, and I do understand why they would need certain "User Data" to improve Dictation; however, it's quite interesting to see the slick writing style and verbiage used to cover their bases such that they could request just about anything from you they wanted to and store it on their servers. It's things like "information like" and "other information, such as" that makes me wonder what's not specified that is potentially sent to Apple, stored on their servers, and used to improve products. Dictation isn't that useful for me, personally.

Lastly, if you're interested in enabling/disabling Dictation based on the information in this post, follow these instructions:

How to enable/disable Dictation:

1: Tap "Settings" 2: Tap "General" 3: Tap "Keyboard" 4: Next to "Dictation," tap the slider to turn it on or off.

What are your thoughts on Dictation and the "User Data" Apple collects for you to use the feature? Do you think the trade-off is worth it? What if Apple had implemented all of Siri instead of just Dictation? Would the privacy trade-off be worth it to you then? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below!

-Stephen Chapman

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Topics: Apple, iPad, Mobility, Servers

About

Stephen is a freelance writer and blogger based in Charlotte, NC. His contributions to ZDNet cover topics related to security, gaming, Microsoft, Apple, and other topics of interest with a tech/SMB skew.

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