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Google pauses listening to EU voice recordings as probe begins

SNS | New Delhi |

Google has stopped listening and transcribing Google Assistant recordings in Europe after Germany’s data protection commissioner said the country was investigating reports that third-party contractors listened to users’  private conversations captured by Google’s AI-powered Assistant.

Belgian broadcaster VRT NWS reported last month that users’ conversations with Google Home speakers were being recorded and audio clips were being sent to sub-contractors who then “transcribed the audio files for subsequent use in improving Google’s speech recognition technology”, raising serious privacy concerns.

The press release by the Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information said, “As the whistleblowers’ report has shown, the employees commissioned by Google were able to gather personal information – some of it sensitive – within the private and intimate sphere of the persons concerned from the recorded conversations. In addition, a not inconsiderable
portion of the recordings were done due to incorrect activation.”

In a statement released on August 1, Germany’s data protection commissioner said the use of automatic speech assistants from providers such as Google, Apple and Amazon is proving to be highly risky for the privacy of those affected.

A Google spokesperson said the tech company has paused “language reviews.”

“We are in touch with the Hamburg data protection authority and are assessing how we conduct audio reviews and help our users understand how data is used,” The Verge reported, quoting a Google spokesperson.

Johannes Caspar, the Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information expressed “considerable doubts” on whether Google is complying with the data protection requirements of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Against this background, the Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information has initiated an administrative procedure to prohibit Google from carrying out corresponding evaluations by employees or third parties for the period of three months.

“This is intended to provisionally protect the rights of privacy of data subjects for the time being. Google has declared that in the course of these administrative proceedings, transcriptions of voice recordings will no longer be carried out at present and for at least three months from August 1, 2019. This covers all of the EU,” said the commissioner.

VRT NWS, with the help of a whistleblower, was able to listen to more than 1,000 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,” said the report.

The transcribers heard just everything, personal information, bedroom talks, domestic violence and what not about Google Assistant users in Belgium and the Netherlands. VRT “overheard countless men searching for porn, arguments between spouses, and even one case in which a woman seemed to be in an emergency situation.”

The Belgian broadcaster said the recordings were done despite the fact that some of Google Home users did not even say the wake word, “Ok Google,” which activates the recording feature of the Google products.

In a statement, Google had said it only transcribes and uses “about 0.2 per cent of all audio clips”, to improve their voice recognition technology.

The press release of Hamburg Commissioner has also asked other tech companies like Apple and Amazon which use speech assistance systems “to swiftly review the implementation of appropriate measures.”