Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Siri Suggestions and Privacy

Jeff Johnson (tweet):

I have no interest in Siri, and I don’t want my devices to phone home to Apple with so-called “anonymous” data that always turns out to be less anonymous than claimed. I expected that the OS would respect my setup screen choice, and indeed if I look at the Siri pane in System Preferences, everything looks disabled.


At the very end you see Siri Suggestions, but you don’t want to click “Learn More…” because that’s the wrong thing. In typical Apple fashion nowadays, this spectacularly bad UI has a disclosure widget that you want to click to learn about Siri Suggestions.


I believe that I understand what this is saying, but the most confusing and maddening thing about it is that not only are the Siri Suggestions preferences themselves somewhat hidden, but the procedures — multiple procedures! — required to stop Siri Suggestions from phoning home to Apple are hidden in entirely different places. It’s like an obstacle course of apps, preference panes, and buttons.

It’s clearly not designed with the idea that you would want to turn off Siri Suggestions for privacy reasons, because there’s a separate checkbox for each app and you would have to remember to go back to the list each time you install a new app. The “Enable Ask Siri” checkbox looks like it might be a global killswitch for all Siri functionality, but it isn’t.


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One issue is that Siri suggestions have little to do with Siri the voice assistant. The naming was a marketing thing, and the suggestions frameworks were originally developed completely separate from the voice assistant stuff.

Hoisted by marketing's petard would be a way to describe this.

It seems like the items to disable are:
· Siri > “Enable Ask Siri”
· Spotlight > Search Results > “Siri Suggestions”
· Safari > Search > “Include Safari Suggestions”
· Safari > Search > “Include search engine suggestions”
· Safari > Search > “Preload Top Hit in the background”
· iCloud > “Siri”
· Security & Privacy > Privacy > Location Services > “Siri & Dictation”
· Security & Privacy > Privacy > Analytics & Improvement > “Improve Siri & Dictation”

(Although I’d expect the last two to be no-ops if the first four are disabled.)

However, there is still the “Learn from this App” checkbox for each app under Siri > ”Siri Suggestions & Privacy…”. My impression was that this option doesn’t actually send data over the internet, and instead populates third-party app-based suggestions that I frequently see on iOS (for example, right now I have a “See what’s happening” suggestion from Twitter and a “Open Profile” suggestion from Tweetbot on my iPhone). That said, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen this style of suggestion on macOS. The privacy document reads:

“Siri Analyzes How You Use Your Devices and Apps to Provide Personalized Suggestions and Better Search Results Using Local, On-Device Processing, and Syncs Across Your Devices with End-to-End Encryption Using iCloud”

However, later in that document:

“When you use Siri Suggestions or Look Up, or type in Search, Spotlight, Safari search, or #images search in Messages, any information sent to Apple does not identify you, and is associated with a 15-minute random, rotating device-generated identifier. Your device may send information such as location, topics of interest (for example, cooking or basketball), your search queries, suggestions you have selected, apps you use, and related device usage data to Apple.”

Emphasis specifically on “suggestions you have selected”. Presumably these are the “suggestions” populated with Internet-sourced content that appear in Look Up and Spotlight searches (if “Siri Suggestions” is enabled under the Spotlight preference pane). But it’s unclear if this also includes “suggestions” populated by the “Learn from this app” checkbox.

In any case, I agree that Apple’s UI is frustratingly unclear. Don’t even get me started on Windows. I wish all software presented privacy controls on a single screen that enumerates all sharing, with checkboxes for each type of data shared. If a user, for example, disabled Siri from this privacy screen, then the associated options under the Siri preference pane would be disabled with an explanation and a link back to the privacy screen. If a user disables everything on the privacy screen, the operating should simply not phone home in any way, even for NTP or OSCP.

I also agree with Óscar’s comment that marketing has made this more confusing. Spotlight suggestions, for example, existed long before Siri was added to macOS.

"Don’t even get me started on Windows."

Windows has one clear advantage: you can use a free tool like WPD to disable all telemetry with basically one click.

I also intuitively expected the Siri Suggestions & Privacy… button to be a help page, not a further settings section. Instead, we get a settings section in a sheet in a space-constrained window. And then inside, another sheet (About Siri & Privacy…). And then inside, a third (Learn More…)! Feels very Windows-ish, with "Advanced…" buttons, except they have a different label.

They should redesign this to be more like the Battery and Apple ID preference panes, where you have a small source list of sections, with "Ask Siri", "Siri Suggestions", and maybe "Siri & Dictation".

It's also unclear to me which of these engines run locally, and which ones require Internet. For example, I believe the "Learn from this App" checkbox is code that runs on-device. But maybe not?

Finally, I thought for the longest time that the "Enable Ask Siri" checkbox was about letting my voice trigger Siri. But I think that feature is called "Hey Siri" instead, and the checkbox instead refers to all of conversation-style Siri. I.e., what we used to think was all of Siri?

@ Óscar: yes, part of the UI problem here is that Siri has become an umbrella term, but most (but not all) of "Siri" System Preferences refers to what is apparently now "Ask Siri".

@Sören Yes, some of these new preferences layouts seem weird to me. For example, why does the Displays pane now have separate “Display Settings…” and “Night Shift…” buttons for opening sheets that are essentially tabs instead of using an actual tab view?

@ Michael: the Displays redesign is… interesting too, yes. I guess the idea was to place display arrangement front and center, and then they realized Night Shift no longer made sense in that new design. But even aside from that, I find the new design confusing. Why can't I double-click a display to get to its settings?

I think it would've worked better if the whole pane were taller, with an arrangement portion on top, and then you single-click to get a detail view in a new bottom pane.

(I do get the sense that mirroring and arrangement have become more powerful. And they've probably made these changes to prepare for Universal Control.)

@Sören Yes, I was surprised I couldn’t double-click or Control-click on a display to adjust its settings. I guess Arrangement is front and center because it’s the top of the hierarchy logically. But it’s odd because it’s probably the least frequently used part of that pane. (And most people don’t even have multiple displays.) The common actions are all buried.

Control-click does work for me.

Just… if we grant that arrangement is important, and given that some of the arrangement settings are inside Display Settings…, wouldn't you want the arrangement view to be _visible_ while you're tweaking those settings?

After years I'm still very confused about what Siri Suggestions does and what the benefits are supposed to be. My instinct therefore has been to disable most things related to it if in doubt. Thank you for pointing me to another list of checkboxes to add to my confusion ;)

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