bye bye privacy
July 12, 2019

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.

"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

May 30, 2018

As your cell phone moves, it connects to different towers and networks, and cell carriers use a communications system called Signaling System 7 (SS7) to provide uninterrupted service during those transitions. SS7 dates to the 1970s, and it is not very secure. Given the right know-how, anyone with access to your cell phone number can potentially use SS7 to track the location of your phone and even intercept calls, texts, and data use.

"Researchers say that SS7 tracking systems around the world now create millions of 'malicious queries' — meaning messages seeking unauthorized access to user information — each month," The Washington Post explains in a Wednesday report on a newly obtained letter from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to the Department of Homeland Security urging the agency to address the issue. Wyden has also contacted the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with a related request.

Cell carriers have added firewalls and other security measures to guard SS7 transmissions since news first broke of the technology's vulnerability a decade ago, but the protections remain imperfect. Federal employees are thought to be particularly at risk, because "America is the Number One target, far and away. Everyone wants to know what's happening in America," Brian Collins, the owner of an Irish cellular security firm, told the Post. "You will always be a target, whether at home or away." Bonnie Kristian

April 20, 2017

Bose wireless headphones have been quietly recording and transmitting usage data via an associated app, a lawsuit alleges, without informing customers or asking them to consent to the surveillance. The app invites users to "get the most out of your headphones" by sharing their name, phone number, and email address. It then documents usage habits, the suit says, and transmits them to, a marketing website that boasts it can "collect all your customer data and send it anywhere."

"People should be uncomfortable with it," said Christopher Dore, an attorney on the case. "People put headphones on their head because they think it's private, but they can be giving out information they don't want to share."

Though unwittingly sharing a playlist may mostly risk revelation of embarrassing taste in music, the lawsuit says more important conclusions could be gleaned from this sort of internet of things surveillance. "Indeed, one's personal audio selections — including music, radio broadcast, podcast, and lecture choices — provide an incredible amount of insight into his or her personality, behavior, political views, and personal identity," court filings note. Bonnie Kristian

April 4, 2017

President Trump on Monday signed a bill repealing regulations adopted last October by the Federal Communications Commission that required internet service providers to obtain consent from customers before using sensitive information, including their browsing history and details on their finances and health, to create targeted advertisements.

The bill barely passed in Congress last week, with Republicans siding with internet service providers who said the regulations were unfair. The American Civil Liberties Union has said privacy should be more important than profits, and "most Americans believe that their sensitive internet information should be closely guarded." On Friday, Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast said they would voluntarily not sell their customers' individual web browsing information, Reuters reports. Catherine Garcia

March 28, 2017

The House voted Tuesday 215-205 on a measure that repeals new Federal Communications Commission regulations that would have required high-speed internet service providers to get customer approval before sharing and using such personal information as their browsing history and app usage.

The rules were approved by the FCC in October, on a 3-2 party line vote. The broadband companies and Republicans argued that websites and social networks that collect information on customers and use it to place targeted ads are not subject to strict rules, while supporters — including Democrats and privacy advocates — said they are worried about what data the ISPs will collect without permission. The Senate voted to repeal the measure last week, and President Trump is expected to sign it. Catherine Garcia

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