Actual People Are Listening to Your Google Assistant Recordings

Google Home Mini Credit: Inverse
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Google is sending audio clips recorded — sometimes inadvertently — by devices with Google Assistant to human contractors, according to a new report.

More specifically, Google appears to be sending audio clips to gig workers through the Crowdsource app for transcription purposes, a whistleblower told Belgian news broadcaster VRT NWS. The news outlet focused on Dutch- and Flemish-speaking Google Assistant users.

Google and many other companies do this to improve their voice assistant technology, but the practice raises some serious privacy concerns.

Google’s human transcribers say they often hear audio recordings that appear to be made on accident. In other words, those times that a Google Home device mistakes a word or sound for its activation phase (“Hey Google” or “OK Google”) and starts recording.

So the company may not be eavesdropping maliciously. But it is sending audio recordings to actual people, sometimes even when a Google Assistant user has no idea that their device is overhearing them.

VRT’s anonymous source says he transcribes roughly 1,000 recordings per week. One time, he heard what appeared to be a domestic violence dispute in one recording.

And out of the 1,000 audio recordings that VRT reviewed, the news publication said that about 153 appeared to have been captured by accident.

If this all sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because Bloomberg published a piece earlier this year revealing that Amazon does something similar. Alexa audio clips are sent to human contractors, who review them for accuracy.

One of the bigger problem is that these human subcontractors can overhear sensitive information, including names, addresses and other personably identifiable details.

The other issue is accidental activations. Even if it isn’t intentional, most people would agree that a smart home device listening in when it isn’t supposed to could be a massive invasion of privacy.

Google told WIRED that only 0.2 percent of all recordings end up being transcribed by a human, but VRT notes that the company could still face legal problems due to Europe’s GDPR regulations.

If you’re worried about what your Google Home device is overhearing, you can head over to Google’s My Activity page and click on Manage Your Activity. Select Voice & Audio to narrow down the results.

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