4 min read

After the news of Amazon employees listening to your Echo audio recordings, now we have the non-shocker report of Google employees doing the same. The news was reported by Belgian public broadcaster, VRT NWS on Wednesday. Addressing this news, Google accepted in yesterday’s blog post that it does this to make its AI assistant smarter to understand user commands regardless of what their language is.

In its privacy policies, the tech giant states, “Google collects data that’s meant to make our services faster, smarter, more relevant, and more useful to you. Google Home learns over time to provide better and more personalized suggestions and answers.” Its privacy policies also have a mention that it shares information with its affiliates and other trusted businesses. What it does not explicitly say is that these recordings are shared with its employees too.

Google hires language experts to transcribe audio clips recorded by Google’s AI assistant who can end up listening to sensitive information about users. Whenever you make a request to Google Home smart speaker or any other smart speaker for that matter, your speech is recorded. These audio recordings are sent to the servers of the companies that they use to train their speech recognition and natural language understanding systems.

A small subset of these recordings, 0.2% in the case of Google, are sent to language experts around the globe who transcribe them as accurately as possible. Their work is not about analyzing what the user is saying, but, in fact, how they are saying it. This helps Google’s AI assistant to understand the nuances and accents of a particular language.


The problem is these recordings often contain sensitive data. Google in the blog post claims that these audio snippets are analyzed in an anonymous fashion, which means that reviewers will not be able to identify the user they are listening to. “Audio snippets are not associated with user accounts as part of the review process, and reviewers are directed not to transcribe background conversations or other noises, and only to transcribe snippets that are directed to Google,” the tech giant said.

Countering this claim, VRT NWS was able to identify people through personal addresses and other sensitive information in the recordings. “This is undeniably my own voice,” said one man. Another family was able to recognize the voice of their son and grandson in the recording.

What is worse is that sometimes these smart speakers record the audio clips entirely by accident. Despite the companies claiming that these devices only start recording when they hear their “wake words” like “Okay Google”, there are many reports showing the devices often start recording by mistake. Out of the thousand or so recordings reviewed by VRT NWS, 153 were captured accidentally.

Google in the blog post mentioned that it applies “a wide range of safeguards to protect user privacy throughout the entire review process.” It further accepted that these safeguards failed in the case of the Belgian contract worker who shared the audio recordings to VRT NWS, violating the company’s data security and privacy rules in the process.

We just learned that one of these language reviewers has violated our data security policies by leaking confidential Dutch audio data. 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 tech giant wrote.

Companies not being upfront about the transcription process can cause legal trouble for them. Michael Veale, a technology privacy researcher at the Alan Turing Institute in London, told Wired that this practice of sharing personal information of users might not meet the standards set by the EU’s GDPR regulations. “You have to be very specific on what you’re implementing and how. I think Google hasn’t done that because it would look creepy,” he said.

Read the entire story on VRT NWS’s official website. You can watch the full report on YouTube.

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