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Screenshot: Apple.com

Apple is putting a worldwide hold on a program that had contractors listening to some Siri queries in an effort to grade the digital assistant on its responses. When the program returns, Apple says users will have the choice whether to participate.

Why it matters: Apple touts privacy as a key selling point, making the idea that someone might be listening to Siri queries unsettling, even if only a tiny fraction of queries were being monitored.

Driving the news: The issue came to light after a Guardian report last week that Apple contractors had been privy to all sorts of conversations, including couples having sex and people at doctors' appointments, as part of their work "grading" Siri's response handling.

  • "While we conduct a thorough review, we are suspending Siri grading globally," Apple said in a statement to Axios, saying it is "committed to delivering a great Siri experience while protecting user privacy."
  • Apple previously said less than 1% of queries were subject to such grading and that they were typically only a few seconds long. Also, it said the queries weren't tied to a particular Apple ID and that those listening were in secure facilities and subject to Apple's strict confidentiality rules.

Between the lines: Digital assistants are in their early days, so the tech giants want to find ways to both see how well they are doing and identify areas for improvement. However, digital assistants are often awakened accidentally, and as such, can end up being privy to sensitive conversations.

The bigger picture: Google is pausing a similar program for EU residents after a Germany data protection commissioner announced an inquiry into its practices.

Go deeper

Updated 1 hour ago - Energy & Environment

Thousands without power as "hazardous" winter storm lashes East Coast

Satellite imagery of the Northeastern U.S. taken by NOAA on Jan. 17. Photo: NOAA

A major winter storm lashed much of the East Coast Sunday and Monday, causing widespread power outages and disrupting travel over the holiday weekend.

The latest: Authorities in North Carolina confirmed that two people died in a car crash and that they responded 600 vehicle accidents during the storm on Sunday, per the Washington Post.

4 hours ago - Health

CDC director says COVID-19 messaging should have been clearer

Rochelle Walensky. Photo: Stefani Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images

Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that the messaging around the COVID-19 pandemic and changing guidance should have been clearer.

State of play: Walensky is being coached by media experts and is planning to have more press briefings by herself in order to ensure that CDC is seen as an independent, scientific entity, rather than as a political one, the Journal reports.

4 hours ago - World

UAE asks U.S. to reinstate Houthi terrorist designation after attack

Secretary of State Tony Blinken (left) listens to United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan during a joint news conference at the State Department iin October. Photo: Andrew Harnik/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed asked Secretary of State Tony Blinken in a phone call Monday to re-designate the Houthi rebels in Yemen as a terrorist organization, a senior Emirati official told Axios.

Why it matters: Less than a month after he assumed office, President Biden rolled back the Trump administration’s decision to make the designation. He said it hampered humanitarian assistance to the Yemeni people. Since then, the Houthis have escalated their attacks against Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region — including an attack Monday in Abu Dhabi.

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