Smart assistants are more popular than ever. You’ll find them inside your phone, built into your TV, and maybe even controlling your lights and stereo systems. Proponents of the technology claim that the interactions we have with current smart assistants are a good preview of what computers will be like in the future — which paints an exciting picture of tomorrow’s technology for anyone who grew up watching shows like Star Trek and The Jetsons.
That said, not everyone knows “how the sausage is made” with respect to complex voice technology. A large database must be maintained for the robot’s vocabulary, and training it to respond naturally requires transcribing millions of real conversations from users! Well, that’s Amazon’s rationale at least — following reporting that the company records users’ conversations.
Amazon, however, isn’t the only player in town when it comes to covert recordings for training AI. According to new reports, Google’s own virtual assistant has been recording the voices of its users for research purposes. What’s more, it might be looking at hefty fines from European regulators! Just what on earth has Google been doing with all this private voice data, anyway?
Everyone’s doing it…
In a recent expose by Belgian publication VRT News, contractors working for Google revealed that Google Assistant takes a very familiar route to train its speech recognition abilities.
Just like Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant is able to work its magic because the system records a small number of queries and captures them for analysts to transcribe. Google claims this is so the assistant is able to understand accents and diverse speech patterns more accurately, but privacy skeptics aren’t so sure.
Unlike the previous scenario with Amazon, however, VRT’s sources actually released a number of the aforementioned recordings for readers to listen to. The recordings are in Dutch, but give a unique perspective into the kind of audio that Google contractors are listening to and transcribing.
One contractor even mentioned that they had been tasked to transcribe a recording where it sounded like a woman was in need of help. Apparently, the company had not given them guidance on what to do in situations like this.
Google and regulators respond
Google hasn’t taken too kindly to the release of internal recordings and processes. The company penned a response that addresses the claims made by the contractors and mentioned that only “a small set of queries” are captured and that the work is “critical” to the development of the software.
Google plans to treat the reports as a “leak,” and is investigating who might have provided the recordings to news outlets.
But Google isn’t the only one concerned about this news. The release of these private recordings has spurred the Irish government’s Data Protection Commission to investigate potential privacy violations on the part of Google and Google Assistant.
Coincidentally, this is not the only active investigation on a tech platform that Ireland is involved in. The commissioner for data protection is currently looking into the privacy practices of multiple big names like Twitter, Apple, and of course, Facebook.
If the investigation finds any significant violations, Google may have heavy fines to pay in its future — and potentially even restrictions on some of its operations.
As of right now, these investigations are pending, but it’s worth remembering just how far our understanding of smart assistants has come in the last year. Not only do we know they are, in fact, listening to us, but also that it’s apparently necessary for them to do so in order to make the system work.
Can I remove these recordings from Google?
We previously covered how you can delete your private recordings from Alexa. This can help prevent Amazon from transcribing your conversations but requires regular upkeep to keep the feed clear.
As for Google, you can find your recording history at myaccount.google.com. Here, you’ll log in and select Data & Personalization from the left sidebar. Then, select Voice & Audio Activity followed by Manage Activity. Here, you’ll be able to comb through individual audio entries and delete them at your convenience.
The recent revelations from Google and Amazon call into question whether having a smart assistant is even worth it for privacy-minded individuals. Is technological convenience worth potential privacy violations?
That’s up to consumers. As for me, I think I’ll just stick with Siri on my phone, for now. She may be “dumber,” but at least she’s not snitching on me (from what we can tell).
Good job, Siri. You’re safe…for now.