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Watch as the U.K.’s defense secretary gets ‘heckled’ by Siri during a speech

Apple’s digital assistant left a leading member of the U.K. government red-faced on Tuesday, July 3, after it unexpectedly piped up during a speech he was giving to lawmakers in the British Parliament.

Perhaps a little too keen to offer help, Siri interrupted a statement that defense secretary Gavin Williamson was giving to the House of Commons about the situation in Syria.

Evidently keeping his phone in always-listening mode, Apple’s digital assistant should really only have responded upon hearing “Hey, Siri.” But, with his iPhone in his pocket, it seems the word “Syria” prompted the assistant to spring into action.

As Williamson addressed lawmakers, Siri got back to the defense secretary with its findings, with the response picked up by the Commons’ microphones: “I found something on the web for Syria, Syrian Democratic Forces supported by coalition … ”

Speaker John Bercow was quick to respond, describing the unusual happening as a “very rum business” (an archaic term for “odd”) as the defense secretary scrambled to switch off his iPhone.

“I do apologize for that,” a sheepish-looking Williamson said, adding, “It is very rare that you are heckled by your own mobile phone.”

He then asked the Speaker if could proceed, “without the help and support of Siri.”

Williamson later tweeted that the gaff was “one of the pitfalls of having a new iPhone … I must ask my 13-year-old daughter how to use it!”

But some people questioned whether it was wise for a defense secretary to be going around with a phone that had voice-recognition software switched on all the time.

A source close to Williamson later insisted that having Siri switched on did not pose a security risk, adding that defense secretary did not take the phone into confidential or sensitive meetings.

A similar though more serious incident occurred in May when Amazon’s Alexa assistant mistakenly recorded a couple’s private conversation and sent it to someone on their contact list.

Always listening?

In a piece about whether our smartphones are indeed listening to us the all of the time, we point out how “the internet is rife with anecdotal stories about digital eavesdropping,” noting that “many people feel that conversations they’ve had within earshot of their phones have been used to tailor advertising.”

Both Apple and Google keep recordings of users’ conversations with their respective digital assistants, though Apple deletes files after two years and says it only uses them to improve the product.

To see your Google history, log in to your account and type history.google.com/history into your browser’s address bar. You’ll see all of your activity on Google’s various services, among them Chrome, Search, and YouTube. Tap Filter by date & product at the top, choose Voice & Audio, and select Search. Any voice searches you’ve made on Google will be listed, and you can even play them back.

Want to prevent your phone from always listening for the keyword — whether “OK Google” or “Hey Siri” — that activates its assistant? On Android, go to Settings > Google > Search & Now > Voice and turn off “OK Google” detection. For the iPhone, go to Settings > Siri & Search and toggle “Listen for Hey Siri” to off.

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Trevor Mogg
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