Google seeks permission for staff to listen to Assistant recordings

Google has said it will let its human reviewers listen to audio recordings made by its virtual assistant only if users give it fresh permission to do so.

The company said the option had always been opt-in but it had not been explicit enough that people were involved in transcribing the clips.

The pledge follows Apple’s switch to an opt-in model in August.

Amazon and Facebook, by contrast, make users ask if they want to be excluded.

Google’s move has been welcomed by digital rights campaigners.

“Companies should do the right thing and make sure people choose to be recorded,” Open Rights Group executive director Jim Killock said.

“They shouldn’t be forced into checking that every company isn’t intruding into their homes and daily conversations.”

Google has said about one in 500 of all user audio snippets would be subject to the human checks.

Leaked audio

The issue of technology-company workers listening and transcribing audio recordings made via smart speakers and virtual assistant apps came to the fore in April, when the Bloomberg news agency reported Amazon, Google and Apple were all involved in the practice.

Staff label words and phrases in recordings to help improve voice-recognition software’s accuracy.

  • Facebook requires opt out for Portal voice recording checks
  • Microsoft halts listening in to Xbox gamers
  • Privacy watchdog probes Amazon Alexa recordings

Although it is common practice to improve machine-learning tools in this way, many customers had been unaware their recordings were being played back and listened to by other humans.

Part of the issue is virtual assistants often switch themselves on without being commanded, meaning users are not always aware of what is being captured.

Belgium’s VRT NWS news website reported in July it had obtained thousands of leaked Google Assistant recordings.

These included cases of mistakenly recorded business phone calls containing private information, it said, as well as “blazing rows” and “bedroom conversations”.

Hamburg’s data protection commissioner launched an inquiry into the matter in August, at which point Google revealed it had suspended human reviews across the EU.

Sensitivity setting

In its latest blog, one of Google Assistant’s managers apologised it had fallen “short of our high standards in making it easy for you to understand how your data is used”.

Nino Tasca said Google would now require existing users who had previously agreed to let their audio be used to improve the Assistant to do so again.

And this time, the settings menu would make it obvious humans would be involved in the process.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *