Google listening in on Dutch conversations: report

Google Assistant
Google Assistant. (Photo: Karneg/DepositPhotos)

Google employees listen in on conversations Dutch people have with their Google Assistant. In some cases this involves private conversations that were accidentally recorded by the assistant, according to around a thousand audio clips a Belgian employee who listens to audio clips for Google shared with Belgian VRT and Dutch NOS. Google does not make clear in its terms and conditions that this can happen, NOS reports.

A  few dozen of the audio clips involve Dutch people, according to NOS. Most of the clips are voice commands recorded by Google Home devices and Google Assistant. On the clips you can hear people instructing their Google device to set an alarm, look up the opening times of a store, play their favorite music, or asking a playful question to test the device. But according to the whistleblower, he sometimes also hears very personal commands, like someone asking Google to search for porn. 

Some of the audio clips aren't voice commands at all, but personal conversations accidentally recorded. NOS received two Dutch telephone calls and a conversation in which a woman can be heard asking a child if he "still has a big mouth". 

"I think it's important for people to realize that people are listening in", the anonymous employee said to NOS. The man works for an international company hired by Google. His job is to listen to conversations Dutch and Belgian people have with their Google devices and transcribe them, so that Google can improve the speech assistant. When he hears conversations that are not voice commands, he must indicate it so that the system can be updated. He has heard dozens of private conversations, he said, including fights and intimate conversations. 

"I remember a long excerpt in which I felt that physical violence was involved, in which someone was audibly in need with a lot of commotion in the background. A stress situation, a lot of movement. Then it really becomes people you listen to again and not just voices", he said to NOS. 

In a response to the broadcasters, Google acknowledged that "language experts" can listen in on these conversations. This happens in roughly 1 in 500 conversations with the smart assistant. According to the company, the audio clips are not linked to "personally identifiable information", so the Google employees do not know who they are listening to. 

People who install the Google Home Assistant are not directly informed that other people may listen to their voice commands, according to NOS. The Google terms and conditions state that the company collects "audio data", but that these may be listened in on and that other conversations may be recorded by accident is not mentioned. A year ago Google made it possible for users to choose not to upload their audio clips to the Google servers. But when setting up an assistant, users are asked to enable this function "to use the full functionality of Google Assistant". 

Google's full response to NOS and VRT:

"We work with language experts around the world to improve speech technology by making transcripts from a small number of audio clips. This work is crucial for the development of technology that makes products such as the Google Assistant possible. 

Language experts assess only about 0.2 percent of all audio clips that are not linked to personally identifiable information.

We have recently learned that one of these language experts may have violated our data security policy by leaking Dutch-language audio clips. We are actively investigating this and when we find a breach of our policy, we will take action quickly, up to and including the termination of our agreement with the partner."

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