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Hush — They’re Listening to Us

Apple and Google have suspended their practice of reviewing recordings from users interacting with their voice assistant programs. Did you know this was happening to begin with?

These companies engaged in “grading,” a process where they review supposedly anonymized recordings of conversations people had with voice assistant programs like Siri. A recent Guardian article revealed that these recordings were being passed on to service providers around the world to evaluate whether the voice assistant program was prompted intentionally, and the appropriateness of their responses to the questions users asked.

These recordings can include a user’s most private interactions and are vulnerable to being exposed. Google acknowledged “misconduct” regarding a leak of Dutch language conversation by one of its language experts contracted to refine its Google Assistant program.

Reports indicate around 1,000 conversations, captured by Google Assistant (available in Google Home smart speakers, Android devices and Chromebooks) being leaked to Belgian news outlet VRT NWS. Google audio snippets are not associated with particular user accounts as part of the review process, but some of those messages revealed sensitive information such as medical conditions and customer addresses.

Google will suspend using humans to review these recordings for at least three months, according to the Associated Press. This is yet another friendly reminder to Google Assistant users that they can turn off storing audio data to their Google account completely, or choose to auto-delete data after every three months or 18 months. Apple is also suspending grading and will review its process to improve its privacy practice.

Despite Google and Apple’s recent announcement, enforcement authorities are still looking to take action. German regulator, the Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information, notified Google of their plan to use Article 66 powers of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to begin an “urgency procedure.” Since the GDPR’s implementation, we haven’t seen this enforcement action utilized, but its impact is significant as it allows the enforcement authorities to halt data processing when there is “an urgent need to act in order to protect the rights and freedoms of data subjects.”

While Google allows users to opt-out of some uses of their recordings; Apple has not provided users that ability other than by disabling Siri entirely. Neither privacy policy explicitly warned users of these recordings but do reserve the right to use the information collected to improve their services. Apple, however, disclosed that they will soon provide a software update to allow Siri users opt-out of participation in grading.

Since we’re talking about Google Assistant and Siri, we have to mention the third member of the voice assistant triumvirate, Amazon’s Alexa. Amazon employs temporary workers to transcribe the voice commands of its Alexa. Users can opt-out of “Help[ing] Improve Amazon Services and Develop New Features” and allowing their voice recordings to be evaluated.

People say “they’re always listening.” Those people may be right. Remember all those times you accidentally hit the buttons on the side of your phone that prompted your voice assistant program? Apple and Google may remember it too.

Categories: Uncategorized

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