Google admits that yes, human contractors may sometimes listen to your conversations

Google Home in the bedroom
(Image credit: Elijah Nouvelage/AFP/Getty Images)

Google said Thursday that outside contractors worldwide listen to recordings of people interacting with Google Assistant on their smartphones or Google Home smart speakers, following the leak of Dutch language recordings. Google product manager David Monsees said contracted language experts "violated our data security policies by leaking confidential Dutch audio data," and Google is "conducting a full review of our safeguards" to "prevent misconduct like this."

The language experts, hired to improve Google's voice recognition system, "only review around 0.2 percent of all audio snippets," Monsees said. "Audio snippets are not associated with user accounts as part of the review process, and reviewers are directed not to transcribe background conversations or other noises, and only to transcribe snippets that are directed to Google." Google does "rarely" record conversations from people who didn't mean to engage Assistant, Monsees conceded, but "we have a number of protections in place to prevent false accepts from occurring in your home."

Belgian broadcaster VRT NWS obtained more than 1,000 Dutch recordings and said in a report this week that some of the snippets contained sensitive personal conversations and information that it used to track down the individuals speaking. Some of the conversations were picked up in background chatter and some were recorded when Google Assistant mistakenly engaged.

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"Google's terms [of service] don't explicitly say that people review the recordings, but do state that data could be analyzed as the company updates services or create new features," The Associated Press reports. "The company acknowledged earlier this year that its reviewers listen to anonymous recordings in response to a Bloomberg report revealing that Amazon's Alexa also uses contractors to listen to recordings." You can disable Google's recording feature — it's actually off by default, though users are encourage to activate it to personalize their services — but as this playfully alarming Wall Street Journal report argues, you'll probably never beat the social media giants at the privacy game. Peter Weber

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