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Apple Sanctioned for Deleting Key Siri Recordings in Privacy Class Action

Client Updates / Jul 01, 2024

Written by: Haim Ravia and Dotan Hammer

A federal judge in San Francisco has sanctioned Apple by prohibiting it from asserting certain defenses in an impending privacy class action lawsuit. This decision was prompted by the company’s deletion of crucial audio recordings of users’ interactions with its Siri voice assistant, which the plaintiffs argued were essential to their case.

The class action complaint alleged that Apple violated users’ privacy by recording conversations without consent through accidental Siri activations, such as sounds like zippers triggering the assistant. Despite Apple’s assurances that Siri would only activate with specific commands, these accidental recordings were shared with third-party subcontractors for analysis without user consent. This led to claims under the Wiretap Act, California Penal Code, California Constitution, and breach of contract. Additionally, the plaintiffs accused Apple of deleting relevant recordings after the litigation began, preventing their discovery and obstructing their case.

Apple defended itself by stating that it retained only a small portion of Siri recordings, which were linked to a random device identifier for six months before disassociating the identifier and keeping the recordings for another 18 months. A subset of these recordings was reviewed by humans to improve Siri’s accuracy and retained for up to five years. Apple argued that obtaining explicit consent for every accidental activation was impractical and that the data used for quality control was anonymized. Following public criticism, Apple suspended the Siri grading program globally and announced future software updates that would allow users to opt-in to share recordings for grading, enhancing privacy protection.

The court found that Apple failed to take reasonable steps to preserve relevant electronically stored information (ESI) after its duty to preserve evidence was triggered upon being served with the plaintiff’s complaint. The court determined that Apple continued to delete ESI under its retention policy despite the obligation to suspend such policies once litigation was foreseeable. The judge disagreed with Apple’s claim that the deleted documents were not relevant and found that the deleted ESI was critical to both the plaintiffs’ claims and Apple’s defenses. As a result, the court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for sanctions, ruling that Apple’s negligent failure to preserve the ESI prejudiced the plaintiffs’ ability to prove their case.

Click here to read the decision in Lopez v. Apple, Inc., N.D. Cal., No. 4:19-cv-04577.