After much criticism, Google has pulled software that has apparently been eavesdropping on unsuspecting users.
The company was accused of automatically activating, without users’ consent, a code that listened to conversations held in front of computers. It was only supposed to support Chrome’s “OK, Google” function, the feature that basically let’s you talk to your computer.
The eavesdropping software will now be an optional download that users can install via Google’s Chrome Web Store. The voice-search functionality must also be activated, The Guardian reported.
But there’s a critical detail about this controversy that deserves some explaining, since Google’s move doesn’t mean other devices aren’t snooping as well, TechTimes pointed out. That’s because the eavesdropping program that got them in hot water is called a “black box,” and it’s important to know that that means.
The software in question was not provided by Google itself, but the open-source Chromium, a base for the Chrome browser. Open-source simply means that anyone can audit the code that has built the program. However, the eavesdropping code was not available to the audit process — making it “block box, The Guardian explained earlier.
This particular software in the Chromium browser was automatically activated; it’s also installed in Chrome, but isn’t enabled without consent.
The company immediately pointed out that Chromium isn’t their product and they don’t distribute it. A spokesman said, in response to the eavesdropping allegations: “We’re sure you’ll be relieved to learn we’re not listening to your conversations – nor do we want to.”
Users felt differently, including Pirate party founder and blogger Rick Falkvinge.
“Without consent, Google’s code had downloaded a black box of code that – according to itself – had turned on the microphone and was actively listening to your room. Which means that your computer had been stealth configured to send what was being said in your room to somebody else, to a private company in another country, without your consent or knowledge, an audio transmission triggered by … an unknown and unverifiable set of conditions.”
But privacy advocates are a bit uneasy about the adoption of voice search functions by smart TVs and Internet browsers — not just smartphones, where they’re common — because it could mean that someone is eavesdropping on private conservations right in the home.
Back to the greater implications, according to Tech Times. As explained, Open Source programs can be examined and vetted by other users, so that people know what exactly it is they’re downloading on their devices. Google won’t be using that “black box” software anymore, but that doesn’t mean other browser don’t, the company said.
And because the software supporting other devices that aren’t open to public examination, Nicole Arce wrote “we can’t really know for sure if Google, or Apple listening out for ‘Hey Siri’ and Microsoft listening out for ‘Hey Cortana,’ is actually eavesdropping in on you right now.”
[Photo illustration by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images]