Is Google eavesdropping? A Belgium news report says yes

"Okay Google. May I hit my wife?"

By JERUSALEM POST STAFF
July 12, 2019 15:26
2 minute read.
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Google. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Google is recording and listening to you in your own home, a Belgium broadcaster VRT reported on Wednesday.

"Okay Google. May I hit my wife?" and "Pornhub," are just a two of the thousands of phrases and conversation snippets recorded by Google and heard by the broadcaster, following a leak of over 1,000 recordings.

While users accept Google's privacy policy, which states that Google records users, the policy does not mention that people are listening to the recordings. Google also claims it encrypts all its recordings. One of the main issues with this is that Google collects confidential and identifiable information where voices are not changed, and addresses and work documents are not covered up. VRT was even able to find at least two of the families who were unknowingly recorded.

Out of the thousands or so recordings that VRT reporters listened to, at least 150 of them should not have been recorded. In other words, Google was recording private conversations that were not addressed to the application or Google Home. Google records information when people accidentally click a button on their phone or if Google mistakenly hears "Okay Google."

According to an anonymous source, "Peter," Google subcontracts a company to transcribe all of these conversations. The contract workers often need to determine whether the speakers are male, female, or a child.

"I've heard people who are clearly addressing their device, but also random conversations," Peter said to the Belgian news source. "Every month we are sent a number of audio recordings, In my case, these are Dutch-language recordings from Belgium and Holland."

Peter reported that there are hundreds of workers like him around the world. He chose to remain anonymous because he had to sign a laundry list of confidentiality agreements when starting his work.

Two other sources from Google confirmed with VRT that this is how Google works.

The anonymous worker recalled one jarring experience when he heard a recording that he believed was violent, and heard a woman that was in distress.

Some of the most pressing questions are why does Google do this and what are the consequences, so VRT approached Google with its findings.

"We work together with language experts worldwide to improve language technology by making transcripts of a small amount of audio recordings," Google said in a statement. "This work is essential if we want to develop technologies that enables us to make products like the Google Assistant. Language experts analyze about .3 per cent of all audio recordings, which are not linked to any personal information."

"There is a legal problem with regard to transparency and safety," Jef Ausloos an IT specialist at the University of Amsterdam. "Measures are being taken to limit the privacy impact."

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