Google defends eavesdropping on smart speaker recordings

Google Home speaker

Google has said it will investigate the source who leaked information about how it reviews and transcribes recordings from Google Home smart speakers and Google Assistant virtual assistant.

On Wednesday, Belgian public broadcaster VRT revealed a Google contractor had shared recordings the company had made via these devices. VRT journalist Tim Verheyden said he had received thousands of these recordings, many of which had been captured by accident after the assistant had misheard its wake word.

The report went viral and brought further scrutiny on Google. Following the revelations, the company responded in a blog post written by David Monsees, a product manager for search.

"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."

"We just learned that one of these language reviewers has violated our data security policies by leaking confidential Dutch audio data," said Monsees. "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."

The Google contractor who leaked the audio data to VRT, using the pseudonym Peter, told the outlet: "Every month we are sent a number of audio recordings. In my case, these are Dutch-language recordings from Belgium and Holland. We log in to a Google Platform, where we can see the audio file. We have to transcribe what is said there as accurately as possible. Sometimes, we indicate whether it is a man's voice, a woman's voice or a child's voice. We do around a thousand such transcriptions per week."

In letting smart products into our homes and lives we should be made aware of the price we have to actually pay. They are, of course, two-way devices, with essentially a chatbot as a middle man. Terms and conditions may detail in fine print that recordings are made and listened to for service improvements, but it still seems an oddly grey area that tech firms seem less inclined to dwell on.

"Google is happy that it has the right to share recordings but is unhappy that this third party has leaked that audio data," said Frank Jennings, a Cloud, IP, GDPR & commercial contracts lawyer. "Everyone else was surprised to discover that human beings are listening in to their conversations at all.

"It seems speech recognition has progressed so far that we don't expect humans to be involved at all when we talk to our smart speakers. Perhaps this shouldn't have been such a surprise since it was revealed that humans were fulfilling some bookings requested via Google Duplex. While asking humans to assist with language recognition and booking fulfilment is a 'legitimate purpose' under GDPR, the real question is whether Google is doing so in a 'transparent manner' and for 'specified and explicit purposes'."

What's more, this technology looks set to be an asset for organisations such as the NHS, which recently announced a service with Amazon's Alexa where users can ask medical questions rather than phone their GP. Not all saw this as a good idea with privacy campaigners highlighting the data protection risks and the Labour MP Tom Watson calling it "the beginning of Mission Creep."

Bobby Hellard

Bobby Hellard is ITPro's Reviews Editor and has worked on CloudPro and ChannelPro since 2018. In his time at ITPro, Bobby has covered stories for all the major technology companies, such as Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook, and regularly attends industry-leading events such as AWS Re:Invent and Google Cloud Next.

Bobby mainly covers hardware reviews, but you will also recognize him as the face of many of our video reviews of laptops and smartphones.