Google Admits Contractors Listen To Home Speaker Recordings

Google has been dragged into a privacy row after it admitted that it uses ‘language experts’ around the world to study user recordings.

The recordings from Google Home smart speakers are reportedly being transcribed by Google, which said that it uses about 0.2% of all audio clips” to improve its voice recognition technology.

The admission comes after it was revealed earlier this year that a global team of people at Amazon reviewed audio clips of people speaking to their Alexa-powered smart speakers, to help improve its functionality.

Home speaker

The news that Google Home speakers also do the same was revealed in a news report from Belgian public broadcaster VRT NWS.

It reported that Google contractors are paid to transcribe audio clips collected by Google’s AI assistant can end up listening to sensitive information about users, including names, addresses, and details about their personal lives.

“VRT NWS was able to listen to more than a thousand recordings,” warned the VRT NWS report. “Most of these recordings were made consciously, but Google also listens to conversations that should never have been recorded, some of which contain sensitive information.”

It seems that CRT NWS had the help of a whistleblower, who revealed that Google uses thousands of subcontractors to listen into audio recordings.

The report was confirmed by three separate sources, and Google admitted it was the case when asked by the public broadcaster.

“This happens by making transcripts of of a small number of audio files”, Google’s spokesman for Belgium reportedly said.

“This work is of crucial importance to develop technologies sustaining products such as the Google Assistant,” the spokesman reportedly said, adding that the language experts only judge “about 0.2 percent of all audio fragments.”

Privacy implications

The admission from Google comes amid growing awareness of the privacy implications of the use of smart speakers.

Last month Amazon was hit with two lawsuits alleging that its Alexa-powered smart speakers are recording children.

Those lawsuits alleged that “Alexa routinely records and voiceprints millions of children without their consent.”

And Amazon has also recently admitted in a letter to a US senator that it keeps Alexa voice recordings indefinitely, or until a user requests there are deleted.

In May privacy jitters were raised again about Amazon when the e-commerce giant filed a patent that would allow Alexa to record everything a person says, before a command is actually issued.

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Tom Jowitt @TJowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

View Comments

  • Why is this a surprise? These devices are listening all the time for the trigger word ‘Alexa’ or whatever. Now you’re giving orders but soon you’ll be receiving them from Big Brother. Go and read 1984 by George Orwell. It’s only going to be 40 years late.

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