Search giant Google on Thursday acknowledged that its third-party contractors are recording and secretly listening to conversations customers have with their Google voice-activated device after a new report from Dutch news outlet VRT NWS disclosed the findings.
According to VRT NWS, the recorded audio clips are being sent to sub-contractors who are “transcribing the audio files for subsequent use in improving Google’s speech recognition”.
VRT NWS, with the help of a whistle-blower, was able to listen to more than one thousand recordings obtained from a Dutch subcontractor who was hired as a “language reviewer” to transcribe recorded audio collected by Google Home and Google Assistant.
“In these recordings, we could hear addresses and other sensitive information. This made it easy for us to find the people involved and confront them with the audio recordings,” said the report on Wednesday.
The transcribers heard just everything: personal information, addresses, conversations between parents and children, bedroom talks, business calls, domestic violence and what not about Google Assistant users in Belgium and the Netherlands.
It was also found that of those 1,000 recordings, 153 of the conversations should never have been recorded, as the wake-up command “OK Google” was not given, the report said.
Reacting to the report, Google said it partners with language experts to review and transcribe only “about 0.2 percent of all audio clips” from Google Home smart speakers, to improve their voice recognition technology.
“We partner with language experts around the world to improve speech technology by transcribing a small set of queries – this work is critical to developing technology that powers products like the Google Assistant,” Google product manager of search David Monsees said in a blog post.
“Language experts only review around 0.2% of all audio snippets, and these snippets are not associated with user accounts as part of the review process.”
Monsees also added that it is investigating the recordings obtained by Belgian site VRT NWS, as they were a breach of privacy.
“Our Security and Privacy Response teams have been activated on this issue, are investigating, and we will take action.
“We are conducting a full review of our safeguards in this space to prevent misconduct like this from happening again.”
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