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More than 1,000 Google Assistant recordings leaked, and oh boy

Hey, Google? Can you not do that? Hey, Google? Can you not do that? Image: Andrej Sokolow / getty By Jack Morse2019-07-11 19:04:07 UTC

It turns out that your private and intimate moments aren't that private after all — if you use Google Assistant, that is. 

According to Belgian broadcaster VRT NWS, devices with the Google digital assistant are recording conversations and sounds inside the homes of their owners and sending those messages to humans for review. Google Home is just one of several devices equipped with Google Assistant, which can also be found on Android phones. 

Perhaps most troubling, at least some of those recordings do not appear to have been trigged with an activation phrase like "Hey, Google." Oh yeah, and over 1,000 recordings were just leaked. 

Much like with Amazon's Alexa, Google pays people to listen to some Google Assistant recordings and transcribe them into text. This means that, in some cases, a real person is listening to what you ask your smart device or smartphone — as well as some things you never meant for it to hear. 

"VRT NWS listened to more than a thousand excerpts, 153 of which were conversations that should never have been recorded and during which the command ‘Okay Google’ was clearly not given," explains the broadcaster. 

And just what, exactly, are the contractors hearing? VRT NWS, which got access to the leaked recordings, describes "bedroom conversations, conversations between parents and their children, but also blazing rows and professional phone calls containing lots of private information."

In other words, things you would typically discuss in the presumed privacy of your own home. 

Google confirmed the leak in an early morning blog post, and laid the blame on a single Dutch language reviewer. 

"Our Security and Privacy Response teams have been activated on this issue, are investigating, and we will take action," wrote Google's David Monsees. "We are conducting a full review of our safeguards in this space to prevent misconduct like this from happening again."

Notably, Google assures its customers that the audio recordings sent to humans for transcription are "not associated with user accounts as part of the review process." However, VRT NWS was able to identify specific individuals based on the content of the recordings. 

As to the fact that devices with Google Assistant seem to be randomly recording people who haven't said "Hey, Google" or any other variation of the activation phrase? Well, the company copped to that troubling reality while attempting to downplay its seriousness. 

"Rarely, devices that have the Google Assistant built in may experience what we call a 'false accept,'" Monsees added. "This means that there was some noise or words in the background that our software interpreted to be the hotword (like 'Ok Google'). We have a number of protections in place to prevent false accepts from occurring in your home."

And yet, it still does happen. 

Fundamentally, your smart assistant isn't actually all that smart and still requires some very human input. If you're not comfortable with the possibility of a stranger listening to an unintentional recording of your most intimate moments, consider saying "goodbye, Google" and either permanently unplugging your Google Home or disabling Google Assistant on your smartphone. 

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