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IBM Paranoid Siri Is Stealing Corporate Secrets

Kensey Lamb
Kensey Lamb
The Exchange

By 24/7 Wall St.

Apple's Siri voice-recognition software, a staple on the iPhone 4S, is one of the great consumer electronics advances in memory. It can, with uncanny accuracy, answer a seemingly endless variety of questions posed by the user. Many iPhone owners say it has become an absolutely essential part of managing their daily lives--both business and personal. But the employees of the world's largest tech company, IBM, cannot use it, according to comments from the firm's chief technology officer, Jeanette Horan.

IBM has a right to be paranoid. It regularly issues more patents each year than any other company--5,896 last year in 2010. IBM has to keep track of more than 440,000 people who produce over $110 billion in sales.

IBM is nuts about secrecy the way that Steve Jobs insisted Apple be. When tech blog Gizmodo got ahold of an iPhone prototype in April 2010, Apple said the handset was stolen, which set off a series of legal wrangling that included accusations that the blog had paid someone to obtain the phone. Tech secrets are the critical competitive advantage in the hardware and software worlds. Much of the sensitive data these companies keep is priceless.

Horan is in charge of all the company's internal use of IT. Her worry about Siri is that Apple takes all communications made through the Siri function of the iPhone 4S and sends them to a data center to be translated and answered. No one outside Apple is certain how long the data is stored or who sees it.

IBM's risks are multiplied by the company's "bring your own device" policy, which allows more than 80,000 employee-owned mobile devices to connect to IBM's internal networks. Horan has surveyed the company's workers and says that they are "blissfully unaware" of the security risks from communications, such as those done through Siri, or the security problems with some apps.

Where does modest caution turn into crazy paranoia? Perhaps when it is not clear whether data can be very easily stolen. As Wired points out, security for Siri could be no better than a  sieve. The terms of use for Siri read, in part, "Apple's and its subsidiaries' and agents' transmission, collection, maintenance, processing, and use of this information, including your voice input and User Data, to provide and improve Siri, Dictation, and other Apple products and services."

IBM can be accused of being ridiculously cautious. In reality, it is no more so than Apple, the creator of Siri.