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

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.

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TOPICS: Apple, iPad, Mobility, Servers
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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

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47 comments
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  • People in glass houses

    "Like" is "loose verbiage". Another rather lose term is "including" which appears with alarming regularity in ZDNet's own privacy policy.

    No doubt both Apple and ZDNet are conscious that privacy policies must be understandable to end users and although the option to literally list every piece of information collected and how it's used might be interesting or useful for some, for the most part it would result in a statement that wouldn't be read by the majority.
    RobotPi
  • This is normal...

    They all do this because the servers are much more powerful at processing the sounds to text and this is exactly how Android works as well...

    How do you think Google was able to update voice actions to match Siri, on all devices, in just 3 months? there was no update, it was server side.
    slickjim
    • Not completely true

      Yes, for searches, it needs a connection but not to do OS or app voice commands like voice dial or dictating a note via Quick Note among others.
      mrxxxman
    • Dictation on my Galaxy Tablet

      So, does this mean and the dictation feature on my Galaxy Tablet (Android) is as good as Siri?
      kdvanpelt
      • I do not know aboit the Galaxy Tablet

        My experience with the new iPad and Android is that the two are equally good and accurate.

        Another thing, When I used Siri it might not have been mature enough yet but, I can tell you that wasn't as accurate as the Android Dictation or the new iPad.
        slickjim
      • Dictation on Android tablet

        With Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.x) the dictation feature leapfrogs iOS once again. ICS does real-time conversion from speech to text as you speak and does not make you wait to hit the done button to find out that the server is down and it missed your 5 minute dictation entirely. Instead you immediately see the results f your dictation as you continue to speak. Much nicer.
        techkraut
      • Android superior, but of course!

        @ techkraut

        You like having 5 minute dictation sessions, before hitting the button? Like stepping on the soapbox and telling the world all the urges to be spoken?
        Why not use voice recorder? That way, it will preserve your intonation and be much more ... informative ;)

        By the way, it is neither iOS or Android. Dictation is an application. Nothing to do with the OS.
        danbi
  • Apple is not google. Their business model

    does not revolve around mining your data for key words to use in selling ads. Your hints at some dark Apple conspiracy is unwarranted.
    baggins_z
    • I know it's a bit of a long read, but...

      I did state the following in the article: "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."

      -Stephen
      StephenChapman
      • Linkbait

        Now who's covering their tracks?
        khurtwilliams@...
      • How about SIRI?

        Does the same hold true for SIRI?
        mrxxxman
      • Fear-mongering is exactly what you're doing.

        "I'm not trying to fear-monger here."-StephenChapman

        Then what's the point of this article? There are several voice dictation programs on the iPhone such as Dragon Dictation. They all work in a similar fashion to the way dictation on the iPad does. All Siri functions, including dictation, on the iPhone work the same way too.

        So why are you writing this article? What are you telling us that we didn't already know? What are you implying because you're sure as heck implying something.

        I don't think you can hide behind a disclaimer that you're not trying to fear monger. You're being a bit more subtle than most, but fear-mongering is exactly what you're doing.
        Falkirk
      • Yes you did, but...

        It's interesting to see your slick writing style and weasel words. How did you thing speech-to-text worked?

        Either you're a luddite or you're suggesting something in this article though trying your best to come off innocent.
        wosayit
      • Bold, Italics etc

        It would be great advancement if dictation would understand intonation and use various rick text format tags to make your text more.. emotional.
        danbi
    • Apples is a business not a faith based religion

      You should be just as suspicious of Apple. They've always done what's best for Apple, not their customers or employees and even their share holders until recently. Let's not forget how they got caught with the GPS data tracking and storage issue too.

      Besides, if it's getting and keeping this information with the voice dictation feature, it also means they're probably doing it now with SIRI too. Does the average iUser understand and accept that too? Steve Chapman, how about a closer look at SIRI too?
      mrxxxman
      • Yes, tell us about the GPS data...

        Why don't you? And include a link to a reputable source please.
        wosayit
      • GPS data?

        That wash't GPS data, but GSM tower signal data. You know, it is a mobile phone and in order to be compliant to the GSM spec has to keep state of signal quality etc with base stations. It was lazy programming to leave that file growing and to Apple's credit they did what was necessary to address this and other privacy concerns by encrypting phone backups.

        Both start with G, yes.
        danbi
    • Apple is not Google?

      Anyone who states that apple's business model does not revolve around mining your data simply has not done their homework. Apple owns an online ad service. The primary reason why Apple would not support flash at a time when almost 100% of all online ads were in flash was to ensure that Apple owners would only see ads on which Apple made money. Siri is primarily a play to carve Google out of the search business in the long run on apple devices so that the results pages can be controlled by Apple along with the ad content.
      techkraut
      • Ya right....

        Wasn't it Apple was caught [along with others] in keeping track of where you were by the GPS feature last year?
        Siri was bought by Apple prior to Google having anhything similar. Judging by the recent issues with Siri, I would prefer the "old fashion" way of using a search engine rather than asking Siri [and repeating at least once] what I want.
        Gisabun
      • Oh, this Flash religion

        It seems, the Flash religion is worse than the Android religion.

        Flash was banned from iDevices, because these devices need to conserve battery power and still provide adequate experience for the user. The Adobe Flash Player is know for it's abysmal resource consumption, both memory and CPU, it's frequent crashing and security flaws.

        Why would Apple want to subject it's users to this awful experience? After all, if they accept subpar experience, there are plenty of other options.
        danbi