Surprise: People are listening to your Google Assistant queries

Yolanda Curtis
July 12, 2019

According to Wired, experts say Google is violating European Union privacy rules, which protect sensitive data like medical information and require transparency about how personal data is collected and processed. While Google said it had anonymised the data, the network was able to discern enough information to learn the name and addresses and even confront some of the people caught up in the recordings.

And while transcriptions technically require the user to opt in, Google lumps the practice under a broad "Voice & Audio Activity" setting, which it offers to users as a way to deliver more personalized results. Google Home snippets were "clear", and Google Assistant, the cellphone app version, produced "telephone quality" audio.

Despite Google saying the audio is captured after a command is heard, VRT NWS said that of the thousand-plus excerpts it listened to, 153 should never have been recorded, saying the command "Okay Google" was clearly not given.

Google says no user account information is associated with the recordings, and reviewers are instructed not to transcribe background conversations. This work is crucial for the development of technology that makes products such as the Google Assistant possible.

After obtaining copies of some recordings, VRT NWS reached out to the users and had them verify their voice, or those of their children, talking to the digital assistant. "We are conducting a full review of our safeguards in this space to prevent misconduct like this from happening again", the blog penned by Google product manager of Search David Monsees said. We are actively investigating this and when we find a breach of our policy, we will take action quickly, up to and including the termination of our agreement with the partner. More information on how to manage and delete Google Assistant data can be found at this Google help page.

The company also said that Google Assistant "only sends audio to Google after your device detects that you're interacting with the Assistant".

"Language experts only review around 0.2 percent of all audio snippets", Google said. Users were not made aware that the Nest Guard had a microphone at all, however.

Earlier this year, a report from Bloomberg revealed fellow tech giant Amazon also listens to some recordings of customer interactions with its voice-based assistant Alexa.

Are our AI devices really listening to our every word?

A hot potato: Algorithms have vastly improved human voice recognition but it seems the technology still needs a lot of real human help to train itself, even if it comes at the cost of privacy. Around a dozen people are employed to listen to Flemish-language conversations, with speakers of the language being mostly concentrated across parts of Belgium and Holland.

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