Google ‘Systematically’ Listens To Google Assistant — And Its Worse Than First Feared

Anna Harnes - Author

Jul. 12 2019, Updated 9:28 a.m. ET

Many have worried about the recording capabilities of voice command programs. Now, a recent investigation by Belgian news organization VRT NWS has revealed that Google employees “systematically” listen to thousands of recordings made by Google Assistant and Google Home. Though most of the recordings were made consciously, others were not — meaning that Google employees heard recordings that included sensitive topics, intimate moments, and even violence.

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VRTNWS was given the recordings from a Google subcontractor. The subcontractor explained that Google’s interest in the recordings was not necessarily what people were saying but how they were saying it. Google wants every cough, pause, or mumble properly analyzed, along with transcripts of the conversation, to better its programming. Frighteningly, three separate sources confirmed that Google often contracts this work out, meaning that the tech giant does not have full overview of the security measures involved.

Google has claimed that privacy for users is preserved because names are replaced with anonymous serial numbers when inputting into the Google system. However, many of the recordings are so personal in nature that many of the sources said that it was incredibly easy to figure out the identities of those in the recordings, especially since many of them mentioned jobs, home addresses, and names of family members.

What’s more, if there is some sort of discrepancy in the transcript, such as an unusual name or mumbled jargon, employees are instructed to use the means necessary, including searching social media websites such as Facebook, to verify the information.

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VRT NWS claimed that it listened to just over a thousand conversations, and 153 of them were not commanded and contained private information, giving a rate of around 15 percent. One contractor detailed how one time, he had heard a violent recording of a woman who was in “distress.” Google does not have any guidelines on how listeners should react in those scenarios.

Since the report, Google has responded in a blog post.

“As part of our work to develop speech technology for more languages, we partner with language experts around the world who understand the nuances and accents of a specific language,” the tech company wrote. “These language experts review and transcribe a small set of queries to help us better understand those languages. This is a critical part of the process of building speech technology and is necessary to creating products like the Google Assistant.”

Google added that only “0.2 percent” of all audio snippets are listened to and background conversations are not to be transcribed.

Google also added that users “opt in” to have their audio recordings stored in their accounts and can still use the programs if they decide against it.


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