Google's Assistant isn't the only one listening to your conversations

Ceria Alfonso
Julio 12, 2019

Flemish broadcaster VRT, which maintains an English-language version, was tipped off that Google workers really are eavesdropping on the commands and other overheard snippets recorded by devices powered by the Google Assistant.

Damningly, they added: "VRT NWS listened to more than a thousand excerpts, 153 of which were conversations that should never have been recorded and during which the command "Okay Google" was clearly not given". "This happens by making transcripts of a small number of audio files" said the company's spokesperson for Belgium, adding that "this work is of crucial importance to develop technologies sustaining products such as the Google Assistant".

The Belgian journos wrote yesterday: "In these recordings we could clearly hear addresses and other sensitive information".

The reporters even played back some of the recordings for the people who had made them. Similar to Alexa, a recent report sheds light on how Google trains its virtual assistant by paying contractors to transcribe audio clips, including those where the personal assistant wasn't even invoked. There are reportedly thousands of Google employees worldwide listening to audio excerpts via a secure login in the company's Crowdsource app.

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And while Google doesn't record until users say phrases like "Hey, Google" or "OK, Google", the devices sometimes mishear other words or phrases and record conversations they aren't meant to listen in on. These included "bedroom conversations, conversations between parents and their children, but also blazing rows and professional phone calls containing lots of private information".

But you might be surprised to learn that Google's employees listen to recordings, and that they might hear more than you think.

Google responded to the report admitting that this is how language experts help to improve its speech technology. Google acknowledged to Business Insider at the time that "We conduct a very limited fraction of audio transcription to improve speech-recognition systems". Users make use of Apple, Google and Amazon's voice-activated services because they trust their privacy is being safeguarded.

We have recently learned that one of these language experts may have violated our data security policy by leaking Dutch-language audio clips. Recordings made with Google Assistant, the smartphone app, are of telephone quality. Language experts judge only about 0.2% of all audio clips that are not linked to personally identifiable information.

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