Siri can tell you where to get groceries, what hospitals are nearby you injure yourself, and even call the police for you in the case of an emergency. But if you tell her you were sexually assaulted, she only replies with "I don't understand."
A report published in JAMA Internal Medicine earlier this month uncovered these inconsistent or unhelpful replies from conversational agents regarding sexual assault. Since then, Kelsey Bourgeois, a women's rights activist and sexual assault survivor herself, started an online petition to improve Siri's responses. The petition currently has 5,000 signatures and Bourgeois expects they will surpass the total goal of 10,000. Once they get more signatures, they will print out the petition and bring it to Apple headquarters.
"It's very difficult after this kind of trauma to talk about it to anybody, and maybe the safest way feels like talking to your phone because it isn't a person," she said. "It's really ingrained to use your smartphone for everything, and this may feel like a safer way for people to start talking about it."
Of the four smartphone digital assistants surveyed in the study, Google Now and S Voice for Samsung also had inconsistent responses to inquiries about sexual assault, but Bourgeois is focusing on Siri in part due to Apple's responses to pressure in the past. The company updated Siri in the past after it was discovered she was unable to help users who asked her about abortion, and again in 2013 after the service was criticized for responding inappropriately to suicide-related questions. Now, when someone describes killing themselves or expresses suicidal or depressive thoughts, Siri directs them to a suicide hotline.
Bourgeois said she has found even in the few weeks since the study came out, Siri has begun to respond to the phrase "I was raped" with RAINN.org—a sexual assault survivor's resource, but she says the work isn't done. She would like to see a wider range of responses from Siri to a wider range of questions regarding sexual violence.
"It seems like Apple is heading the right direction but it's important to keep the pressure on so that they change the code," she said. "Any time we can remove the barrier between person who was traumatized and someone who can help or the resource they need in order to report a crime I think we need to do our best to make that connection."