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Not OK Google

Views on privacy vary. Most people either do not think about it, or trust that big tech companies will do no harm with knowledge of your location, who your friends are, what you like to view on the internet and so on.

That truest may be shaken by disturbing revelations last week from Belgian broadcaster VRT. The report states that:

  • Google records speech heard by its Google Assistant or Google Home devices
  • Google passes on a proportion of these recordings to third parties, to assist with transcription. This is done to improve the speech recognition
  • Many of these recordings – it is not known exactly how many – are recorded unintentionally, rather being started with the “OK Google” trigger words. This could be because of some sound that the device incorrectly interprets as “OK Google”, or because of a mis-tap on a smartphone.
  • The recording are not effectively anonymised. They include addresses, names, business names and so on. Identity is often easy to work out.
  • The recordings are personal. They include medical queries, domestic arguments, even on one occasion “a woman who was in definite distress.”

Google’s response? Its main concern is to prevent future leaks of audio files, rather than with the fact that these recordings should not have been in the hands of third parties in the first place. “We are conducting a full review of our safeguards in this space to prevent misconduct like this from happening again,” says Google’s David Monsees.

Did users consent, somewhere in the miasma and dark UI patterns of “Accept” buttons that now bombard us on the web? Maybe, but I do not think this is what was expected by those users whose identifiable private moments were first recorded and then passed around by Google. They have been let down.

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