A new report aims to shed light on the fact that Google Assistant, which is one of the most popular digital assistants in the wild, has human reviewers that can potentially listen to personal conversations.
WIRED has the report, based on a story put together by Belgium’s public broadcaster, VRT. The network was able to ascertain over 1,000 audio recordings from a Google contractor originally tasked with reviewing audio recorded by Google Assistant. The recorded audio was picked up from a variety of devices, including smart speakers, security cameras, and phones.
Google has already confirmed that it anonymously transcribes upwards of 0.2% of uploads in an effort to improve its technology. But, interestingly, it is the accidental activations of Google Assistant that are recording potentially private conversations. For instance, one recording revealed that the couple in question were recorded identifying their status as grandparents, their physical address, and the voices of their grandchild and son.
Some of those captured fragments of phone calls and private conversations. They include announcements that someone needed the bathroom and what appeared to be discussions on personal topics, including a child’s growth rate, how a wound was healing, and someone’s love life.
There is some speculation that this practice may violate the General Data Protection Regulations in the European Union. In one of the more alarming recorded moments, the report includes an incident where Google Assistant recorded a woman in distress:
In one case, the contractor said, he transcribed a recording in which a woman sounded like she was in distress. “I felt that physical violence was involved,” he said in the English subtitles on VRT’s video report. “It becomes real people you are listening to, not just voices.” The contractor goes on to say that Google had not provided clear guidelines on what, if anything, workers should do in such cases.
As far as Google is concerned related to this report, the company has apparently launched an investigation of the contractor in the story, as Google says they violated data security policies.
This is not the first time we’ve heard about this sort of thing happening. In April of this year, a report from Bloomberg revealed that thousands of Amazon employees were listening to voice recordings captured by Echo.
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