Google probes leak of smart speaker recordings

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When Bloomberg reported that Amazon's Alexa was using thousands of humans to transcribe and annotate recordings, many made without the user's knowledge, Google gloated that its superior Home Assistant anonymized and distorted audio snippets.

"Hiring people from around the world means the company's "speech technology works for a wide variety of languages, accents and dialects", thus "[enabling] products like the Google Assistant to understand your request, whether you're speaking English or Hindi". Google also says it will work to improve how it explains the Assistant privacy settings to people. Thus VRT NWS chose to find out if Google is doing the same.

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The news comes from Belgian news service VRT NWS, which reports on Google's use of subcontractors to analyze Assistant audio samples.

Of the recordings VRT NWS listened to 153 were recorded without the OK Google hotword being spoken which is striking.

It seems Amazon isn't the only company who hires people to eavesdrop on conversations you have with your voice assistant - Google has now been caught out doing the same thing, too. "We are conducting a full review of our safeguards in this space to prevent misconduct like this from happening again", said Monsees.

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More than 1,000 recordings were obtained by Belgian public broadcaster VRT.

There were instances of domestic violence being recorded which raises the ethical question of what is Google's responsibility here.

While the tool is free for anyone to help Google get better at describing images and facial expressions, audio recordings are exclusively accessible to Google subcontractors who can log in to a secure part of the tool where a list of audio excerpts awaits their analysis.

Google clarifies that "rarely", Google Assistant built devices may experience a "false accept".

You may well have suspected it, but now Google has confirmed it - contractors for the company are able to listen to what you say to Google Assistant. These included "bedroom conversations, conversations between parents and their children, but also blazing rows and professional phone calls containing lots of private information". "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to recover someone's identity; you simply have to listen carefully to what is being said. Our Security and Privacy Response teams have been activated on this issue, are investigating, and we will take action", said Monsees.

Speech recognition creates a transcript of recordings automatically and one of the main tasks of employees working on this is to listen to the conversations and make sure that the transcript is accurate.

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