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Google employees are systematically listening to audio files recorded by Google Home smart speakers and the Google Assistant smartphone app

Since Google launched its Google Home device in 2016, millions of people have installed one of these smart speaker devices at home or in their office. You can ask it all sorts of trivial questions.

If you ask ‘Okay Google, how’s the traffic heading towards Brussels?’, the device automatically switches on and a computer voice will read out the latest traffic information. Seems very useful, right? You can do the same thing with the Google Assistant app on your smartphone, comparable to Apple’s Siri.

Everything is recorded

Not everyone is aware of the fact that everything you say to your Google smart speakers and your Google Assistant is being recorded and stored. But that is clearly stated in Google’s terms and conditions. And what people are certainly not aware of, simply because Google doesn’t mention it in its terms and conditions, is that Google employees can listen to excerpts from those recordings.

Google has continually claimed that it doesn’t eavesdrop. Google Holland even made a smooth YouTube ‘explainer’ to remove any misconceptions about eavesdropping. In this video, Google employees answer the question ‘Does Google eavesdrop?’. They say that the commands are being stored and transferred to Google for analysis. And they very clearly state: ‘No, you are not being eavesdropped’.

Google does listen in

It is true that Google does not eavesdrop directly, but VRT NWS discovered that it is listening in. Or rather: that it lets people listen in. We let ordinary Flemish people hear some of their own recordings. ‘This is undeniably my own voice’, says one man, clearly surprised. 

A couple from Waasmunster immediately recognise the voice of their son and their grandchild.

What did we do? VRT NWS was able to listen to more than a thousand excerpts recorded via Google Assistant. In these recordings we could clearly hear addresses and other sensitive information. This made it easy for us to find the people involved and confront them with the audio recordings.

Why is Google listening in?

In the aftermath of the Amazon case, we were able to talk to someone who works for a Google subcontractor. He let us take a look at the system that collects audio via Google Assistant. Thousands of employees worldwide use this system to listen to audio excerpts. In Flanders and Holland, around a dozen people listen to Dutch recordings.

Why is Google storing these recordings and why does it have employees listening to them? They are not interested in what you are saying, but the way you are saying it. Google’s computer system consists of smart, self-learning algorithms. And in order to understand the subtle differences and characteristics of the Dutch language, it still needs to learn a lot.