More than 1000 Google Assistant recordings leaked, and oh boy

Ruben Fields
July 12, 2019

Google has admitted that it listens to voice recordings of users from its AI voice-assistant Google Assistant after its Dutch language recordings were leaked by Belgian public broadcaster VRT.

If you use Android's Google Assistant, chances are you've noticed your phone occasionally waking up without your "OK Google" prompt. According to VRT NWS, 153 of the leaked voice recordings it obtained were recorded by Google, even though the "OK Google" command was not given.

"In these recordings, we could clearly hear addresses and other sensitive information". "Hiring people from around the world means the company's "speech technology works for a wide variety of languages, accents and dialects", thus "[enabling] products like the Google Assistant to understand your request, whether you're speaking English or Hindi".

A Google spokesperson told Business Insider that language experts are employed to transcribe "a small set of queries", approximately 0.2 percent of audio snippets which are then used to develop the technology that allows Google Assistant to run.

Beyond simply revealing how accessible these recordings can be, the investigation also sheds some light on questionable polices - or the lack thereof. Google is also reviewing the policies it has in place for its transcribers "to prevent misconduct like this from happening again".

"Our security and privacy response teams have been activated on this issue, are investigating, and we will take action", it wrote. It was found that numerous recordings included identifiable personal details of users, while 153 conversations were seemingly recorded by accident, as the wake command of "OK Google" or "Hey Google" wasn't used to trigger the digital assistant. Following a report on how Amazon's Alexa works, it looks like Google is employing pretty much the same process for improving its algorithms.

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Google tries to hide the personal information of users by labeling recordings with numbers instead of user's name. More information on how to manage and delete Google Assistant data can be found at this Google help page.

Human review of the recordings is necessary to improve the software's understanding of various languages, Google said in a blog post.

You may well have suspected it, but now Google has confirmed it - contractors for the company are able to listen to what you say to Google Assistant. Google doesn't listen to what's going on in your home in real time, but makes recordings when Assistant is triggered - later having humans examine them and train Assistant to better understand what you're saying.

The idea behind the recordings is to make the speech recognition more accurate.

When setting up a Google account, the option for voice and audio activity is set to off by default.

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