Google Assistant subcontractors are listening to Dutch users’ private conversations

Amazon recently had its moments in the crosshairs over privacy concerns with Echo devices listening in on users’ conversations. Now Google’s up.

A report by Dutch broadcaster VRT claims that Google Home speakers are listening and recording conversations even in some cases where they haven’t been activated with a wake command. Google has reportedly sent those recordings to subcontractors for transcription and review in understanding spoken languages. In this instance, the AI is still adjusting to the nuances of Dutch. VRT said it contacted a subcontractor who provided access to more than a thousand excerpts.

Google’s terms and conditions state that the company records and stores Google Assistant conversations. But the Dutch branch of the international company has insisted that it is not eavesdropping on its users. Even though the subcontractors don’t see any personal information about the recordings they review, they do hear enough to potentially identify the individuals speaking. VRT said it was able to locate the subjects of some of the recordings.

Some of the recordings included cases where the “Okay Google” command had clearly not been spoken. VRT reported finding private conversations around business and sex, as well as an instance of potential domestic violence.

Following this expose, Google released a statement about its safety processes for user data. The company said the subcontractor working with VRT had violated its data security policies and it would be working to prevent similar cases of misconduct in the future. It added that Google’s language experts only review about 0.2% of all audio snippets.

Although the companies behind smart speakers have many times now insisted that leaking of private information is rare, it also appears that they have few (if any) policies in place to protect their users’ privacy, or even their safety in cases where a physical attack is recorded. Google can take steps to punish the individual who let VRT access the recordings, but that doesn’t help with the other issues this report uncovered, such as the language experts hearing content they shouldn’t when the devices record things they shouldn’t.

Anna Washenko