Apple to iPhone users: We want your iCloud photos, emails, contacts to improve Siri, AI

Apple is going to expand its use of 'differential privacy', which taps iPhone user data to improve its services.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

Apple will soon start collecting iCloud data to improve Siri and other services.

Image: CNET

Apple is introducing a new analytics section to its iOS privacy settings where it will ask for permission to analyze iCloud account data to improve Siri and other smart features.

Apple has been critical of Silicon Valley's addiction to harvesting and monetizing user data for ads, but it appears Apple sees some sense in accessing user data and will be seeking to use more of it in the near future.

An iOS 10.3 beta released last week contained a note under the title 'iCloud Analytics & Privacy', explaining that Apple wants to analyze iCloud account data to improve intelligent features such as Siri. iCloud services include photos, email, contacts, calendar, iCloud Drive, notes, Keychain, Find My iPhone, and iTunes storage.

"Apple would like your help to improve our products and services by using, in a privacy preserving manner, data from your iCloud account," it says.

"Analysis of such data will allow Apple to improve intelligent features and services such as Siri and other similar or related services."

Importantly, iPhone users can opt out of the data-sharing system under the section in Privacy within Settings.

Apple notes that it will only crunch your iCloud data after it applies what it calls "differential privacy", a technique it debuted last year with iOS 10 as part of its plan to improve its artificial-intelligence services.

Unlike Google or Facebook, Apple exec Craig Federighi boasted that its deep-learning and artificial-intelligence analysis would be done on the device rather than in the cloud, but it would still be collecting user data to enable new features.

Differential privacy adds "mathematical noise" to data that Apple collects from devices, allowing it to do "crowdsourced learning" to spot usage patterns en masse without profiling individual users.

The first features it improved using differential privacy included QuickType and emoji suggestions in iMessage, as well as Spotlight search suggestions and Notes.

Apple hasn't said exactly what iCloud data it wants to use, nor which products beyond Siri it hopes to improve with the new data. However, it does appear to be preparing to significantly expand of its use differential privacy.

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