Surprise: People are listening to your Google Assistant queries

Remigio Civitarese
Luglio 11, 2019

It shouldn't be news to anyone that Google stores your recordings; this is in Google's terms and conditions, and it's how the voice assistant improves.

The Google contractor says the job entails listening to the recordings to check the accuracy of the assistant listening to users speaking in Dutch.

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.

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

VRT NWS managed to gain access to more than a thousand audio excerpts recorded by Google Assistant in Belgium and the Netherlands. Contractors review the script of the recorded query and confirm it matches with the voice recording.

Google Assistant is accurate and there's a reason why. "But the sound is not distorted in any way". Some of these recordings contained highly sensitive and private information.

In response to the report, Google says that these contractors listen to 0.2% of all recordings and that user accounts aren't associated with the recordings. The clips, which were leaked by a whistleblower in collaboration with the Belgian broadcaster VRT, included information which was recorded even when the user had not said the magic words, "Ok, Google".

An employee who transcribes such audio clips also tells of a woman whom he could identify was in "definite stress" but given the lack of guidelines regarding such cases, there wasn't much he could do.

Google responded to the report admitting that this is how language experts help to improve its speech technology.

If you've got a Google Home speaker at home, or you use the Google Assistant smartphone app, your privacy may be at risk. Out of the thousand or so recordings reviewed by VRT NWS, 153 were apparently recorded accidentally.

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