People are listening to your Google Assistant queries — Surprise
Jul 13 2019
A bunch of Belgian investigative journalists have discovered that Google workers really are listening in on people who use its voice-activated Google Assistant product.
The search engine giant confirmed that it uses recordings in partnership with language experts from around the world who "understand the nuances and accents of a specific language", and said the experts review and transcribe a small set of queries to help it better understand those languages. Google Home snippets were "clear", and Google Assistant, the cellphone app version, produced "telephone quality" audio. Thus VRT NWS chose to find out if Google is doing the same. They are not interested in what you are saying, but the way you are saying it. Google's computer system consists of smart, self-learning algorithms.
The subcommittee plans to "examine the impact of market power of online platforms on innovation and entrepreneurship", according to a release announcing the hearing.
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".
To the horror of users, VRT NWS heard just everything: personal information, bedroom talks, domestic violence and what not about Google Assistant users in Belgium and the Netherlands.
"Language experts only review around 0.2 percent of all audio snippets". For those unaware, users with Google Assistant on their phones and smart speakers have to speak "Ok, Google" to start a conversation with the AI-powered virtual assistant. The company announced in a blog postthat it is "conducting a full review of our safeguards in this space to prevent misconduct like this from happening again".
Notably, Google assures its customers that the audio recordings sent to humans for transcription are "not associated with user accounts as part of the review process". Some of these recordings included sensitive information such as home addresses, pornography and medical questions - most of which you would expect people want to remain private.
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According to the report, the excerpts are indeed disconnected from the information about the user they were obtained from, with the user name being replaced with an anonymous serial number.
Speech recognition creates a transcript of recordings automatically and one of the main tasks of employees working on this is to listen to the conversations and make sure that the transcript is accurate.