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Google Admits Humans Listen to Our Conversations With Assistant, But Its Policies Never Clarified That

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Image for Representation

"We’ll share personal information outside of Google when we have your consent,” the company says in its privacy policy. But are Google contractors a part of the Google group of companies? Because if they are not, then did Google take anyone’s consent to share the audio clips with contractors?

Google is defending the policy that allows humans in the company to hear audio recordings of conversations between users and its Google Assistant software. These audio recordings are expected to hold personal information, sensitive information including locations and addresses, business conversations and even private chats in the comport of your home. Google has said that humans only review a fraction of all the conversations that millions of users have with Assistant globally. Google Assistant is the artificially intelligent voice assistant that is available on Android smartphones, Android TV based smart TVs and the Google Home line-up of smart speakers.

“Language experts only review around 0.2 percent of all audio snippets. Audio snippets are not associated with user accounts as part of the review process, and reviewers are directed not to transcribe background conversations or other noises, and only to transcribe snippets that are directed to Google,” says David Monsees, Product Manager, Search, in an official statement, before adding “We apply a wide range of safeguards to protect user privacy throughout the entire review process.” The tech giant has responded after Belgian public broadcaster VRT NWS detailed how contract workers have access to audio recordings and can listen in on user conversations with Google’s virtual assistant platform.

Google insists that the human workers listen to parts of the conversations to help Assistant improve its responses and be able to work well with multiple languages. “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. 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,” says Monsees. It surely must be for our own good then.

Then there is the good old excuse of “Google Assistant only sends audio to Google after your device detects that you’re interacting with the Assistant—for example, by saying “Hey Google” or by physically triggering the Google Assistant.” And we are also told that the indication on our smartphone screens and the flashing LEDs on the Google Home speakers are indicators that the smart speaker is now listening. “Rarely, devices that have the Google Assistant built in may experience what we call a “false accept.” This means that there was some noise or words in the background that our software interpreted to be the hotword (like “Ok Google”). We have a number of protections in place to prevent false accepts from occurring in your home,” is Google’s way of assuring us. If you buy it, that is.

What is not clear from Google’s clarification is how these audio clips are selected for manual scanning, what sort of access Google’s own employees or the contract workers have and how this is being used to make general language improvements.

It was quite shocking how Tim Verheyden, a journalist with Belgian public broadcaster VRT, was able to get access to thousands of audio clips from a Google contractor, and this included audio captured from smart speakers and Android phones. The conversations included sensitive information such as addresses being discussed.

The privacy information for Google’s home devices do not provide any clarity on whether the company uses human workers to review audio clips of interactions you do with Google Assistant. If we are to look at the Data security & privacy policy for Google Home, there is absolutely no clarification for this.

Let us look at the question – “What does Google do with the data it collects?” Google has given a long winding answer to this question, but this is perhaps an example of saying a lot and not saying anything at the same time. Google says, “First and foremost, we use data to make our services faster, smarter, and more useful to you, such as by providing better search results and timely traffic updates. Data also helps protect you from malware, phishing, and other suspicious activity. For example, we warn you when you try to visit dangerous websites. Also, on surfaces where we show ads, we use data to show you ads that are relevant and useful, and to keep our services free for everyone. Google Home learns over time to provide better and more personalized suggestions and answers.”

Then comes the question – “ Where are you saving my data?” To this, Google clarifies with “Google stores data about your interactions with the Google Assistant on its servers, which reside in its data centers.” Interesting.

You might, at this point, want to ask – “Is my data safe with Google?” To this, the tech giant says, “Your security comes first in everything we do. If your data is not secure, it is not private. That is why we make sure that Google services are protected by one of the world’s most advanced security infrastructures.” Again, this look like perfect PR speak.

The big question – “Is Google Home recording all of my conversations?” You really want to know, don’t you?
Google’s response starts off with “No.” Mind you, look carefully at the word “no”. The company says “No. Google Home listens in short (a few seconds) snippets for the hotword. Those snippets are deleted if the hotword is not detected, and none of that information leaves your device until the hotword is heard. When Google Home detects that you've said "Ok Google" or “Hey Google”, or that you've physically long pressed the top of your Google Home device, the LEDs on top of the device light up to tell you that recording is happening, Google Home records what you say, and sends that recording (including the few-second hotword recording) to Google in order to fulfill your request. You can delete these recordings through My Activity anytime. When you interact with your Assistant by voice, we may use the text of those interactions to inform your interests for ad personalization.”

Did you get any indication so far that some human working at Google or some Google contractor will be sitting somewhere on planet earth listening to you talking about how your child’s growth has been so far, where you intend to go on a date over the weekend, how much money your bank account has and when you need to use the washroom? No? We didn’t, either.

The next question – “Does Google Home share my information with anyone / my contacts / Google / other apps / advertisers / other companies?” Oh, that’s a biggie. Google says, “We do not sell your personal information to anyone. There are some circumstances where we share information with third parties, which are listed in Google's Privacy Policy. On Google Home, if you request a service from a business like Uber, we will send information you've provided to that service to complete a booking or confirm a ride. In these cases, we will have previously asked you to give us permission to share that information with that service.” Nope, we again didn’t hear anything about Google contractors listening to our conversations claiming to make Assistant’s language responses better.

But okay, Google did mention that it may share some information with third parties based on their own Privacy Policy. So, let us look at that. Oh no. “We’ll share personal information outside of Google when we have your consent. For example, if you use Google Home to make a reservation through a booking service, we’ll get your permission before sharing your name or phone number with the restaurant. We’ll ask for your explicit consent to share any sensitive personal information,” says the privacy policy. The policy also states, “We provide personal information to our affiliates and other trusted businesses or persons to process it for us, based on our instructions and in compliance with our Privacy Policy and any other appropriate confidentiality and security measures. For example, we use service providers to help us with customer support.”

But who are these affiliates? The description given for affiliate, as shared by Google is, “An affiliate is an entity that belongs to the Google group of companies, including the following companies that provide consumer services in the EU: Google Ireland Limited, Google Commerce Ltd, Google Payment Corp, and Google Dialer Inc. Learn more about the companies providing business services in the EU.” Are Google Contractors a part of the Google group of companies? Because if they are not, then did Google take anyone’s consent to share the audio clips with contractors?

At least Amazon lets you say “Alexa delete everything I said today” so that you can then sleep in peace after the great digital purge for the day. Including all intended conversations with the smart assistant, and all “false accepts” too.