back to article Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean Google isn't listening to everything you say

A bunch of Belgian investigative journalists have discovered that Google workers really are listening in on people who use its voice-activated Google Assistant product. The team at Flemish broadcaster VRT was tipped off that commands and snippets of conversations and noise picked up by devices powered by Google Assistant are …

  1. Baldrickk Silver badge
    FAIL

    And are we surprised?

    1. LDS Silver badge

      No, but we must not get used to either. It can't become "business as usual".

      1. Christopher Rogers

        Too late.

        1. BillG Silver badge
          Facepalm

          Welcome Captain Obvious

          The answer to creepy always-on audio surveillance devices is simple: don't buy them.

          1. Christopher Rogers

            Re: Welcome Captain Obvious

            Couldn't agree more. Also, don't visit anyone who has bought one and dont have a conversation with anyone who has a phone in their pocket.

            Lots of tinfoil hattery to be had.

            1. jake Silver badge

              Re: Welcome Captain Obvious

              "Lots of tinfoil hattery to be had."

              It's tinfoil hattery to not want a device that has been proven to record private conversations without so much as a by-your-leave in your house and as many other places they can put one?

              I suppose you don't have a problem with insurance companies placing a GPS device in your vehicle in order to micro-manage where you are and how your got there?

              They really have your number, don't they, consumer. Are you sure you want to live in a totalitarian surveillance state? Because that's where we are heading.

    2. Starace Silver badge
      Alert

      I thought everyone knew!

      Alexa definitely triggers without needing the keyword, it does it all the time and doesn't even reliably record that it responded.

      It's pretty reliable at piping up in the background during phone conversations but my favourite so far is getting it to trigger in response to a particularly loud fart. It was confused by the question apparently.

      1. Jedit
        Joke

        "It was confused by the question apparently"

        Well, you were talking out of your arse...

      2. LewisRage

        Re: I thought everyone knew!

        You can listen to what your google devices have picked up under your google account page (the security bit perhaps?). There's a metric fuckload of stuff that doesn't begin with 'ok google' in mine, and that was before I put a home mini in the kitchen (it was free, what am I gonna do).

        It was useful once though, I was talking to a colleague and said "I'll have to google for [specific bit of information]", my phone assumed that I had triggered the voice thing and pretty promptly answered out loud with what we needed to know for us both to hear. It saved me a few keystrokes at least.

        1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

          ...it was free, what am I gonna do...

          I recommend fire. Lot's of it.

        2. sabroni Silver badge

          Re: it was free, what am I gonna do

          Bend over and spread them apparently....

        3. JohnFen Silver badge

          Re: I thought everyone knew!

          "(it was free, what am I gonna do)."

          You're good with installing spy devices just because they're free? Myself, I'd have cannibalized it for parts.

        4. Bibbit

          Re: I thought everyone knew!

          I had intestinal parasites once. They were free too.

      3. Martin-73 Silver badge

        Re: I thought everyone knew!

        Indeed, google assistant randomly pops up on my phone a couple of times a day on average, usually for no identifiable reason. Sometimes during complete silence. So much so that I know the response to 'fuck off google' is 'sorry'

        I am aware of the dangers of having it enabled, and will put the phone in the microwave if planning a major crime.

        But the public should be better informed, to most people, the tech is just 'magic'

        1. jake Silver badge

          Re: I thought everyone knew!

          As Leigh Brackett put it "Witchcraft to the ignorant … simple science to the learned."

          A.C.Clarke later said "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      The Stasi

      are spinning in their graves.

      1. LDS Silver badge

        Re: The Stasi

        Or maybe are working for Google, who knows?

      2. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

        Re: The Stasi

        What makes you think they are all dead?

    4. Tomato42 Silver badge

      The page you can listen to your own recording says "Only you can listen to this recordings". You'd think that extracting them wouldn't require just one insider to do.

      They brazenly lied. I hope that we will see the first real GDPR fine from that.

    5. popetackler

      I hate these types of short-sighted comments. No, most people are not surprised, especially if they seek out news on sites like El Reg.

      What is important is that we do not become complacent and we educate friends and family. What is important is that we have all the information in front of us, in black and white, and can make our own choices about whether we accept this privacy invasion for the small convenience it provides us.

    6. TheVogon Silver badge

      They cant be anonymised if the recording itself contains personal information. The GDPR fine for this should have a good few zeros on the end.

  2. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    Not Okay Google

    I understand that programming language recognition in foreign languages is a bitch.

    That still does not give you the right to record everything.

    But don't worry Google, GDPR is here and you will change because otherwise, it'll cost you billions.

    Because obviously, you can't do The Right Thing (TM) on your own, so we need GDPR to "convince" you what The Right Thing (TM) actually is.

    1. Jamie Jones Silver badge

      Re: Not Okay Google

      Whilst I agree that's what will happen, shouldn't the "cost you billions" happen anyway, as this breach has already happened?

    2. anonymous boring coward Silver badge

      Re: Not Okay Google

      "programming language recognition in foreign languages is a bitch"

      Foreign languages? Such as English?

      Every language is "foreign" to a computer.

      1. eldakka Silver badge

        Re: Not Okay Google

        Every language is "foreign" to a computer.

        Except for its machine code that is.

        1. JohnFen Silver badge

          Re: Not Okay Google

          Often, including the machine code. -- in many modern processors, the machine code isn't the processor's "native language" -- it gets converted into the microcode that the processors actually use.

    3. Rooster Brooster

      Re: Not Okay Google

      Hallo Google,

      Bonjour Google,

      G'day Google

      You are right.

      It is a minefield, although the tech is amazing.

      For a while I strongly suspected that the mics were pumping my in home data away to a dark place without the use of a key word.

      Without the use of the OK/Hey google trigger word, I have not given permission/consent for my data to go anywhere!

      Thus GDPR is clearly breached. This is a crime and for this there is a cost.

      Google broke the law.

      Pucker up Alphabet - think of it in lieu for the taxes you avoided.

      1. katrinab Silver badge

        Re: Not Okay Google

        Caio Google

        Bonjourno Google

        Egregio Google

        Pronto Google

        Spettabile Google

        Buona Sera Google

        and I could go on.

        And that is just one language.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Not Okay Google

      from Google's viewpoint it IS very much okey. Sure, 10 years down the line they might pay another 20K "fine" (remember that "engineer wifi-slurp error"?). The fine might even be 200K, or 2M, so what? This is still not even small change for them, hence zero deterrent, and people are stupid enough, there's absolutely nothing to stop them using facebook and buying new, "cool" gadgets. Unless there's no electricity and only a few of us left on the heap of rubble we've created.

      1. DJO Silver badge

        Re: Not Okay Google

        Up to 4% of Google's global turnover, a tad more than than 20K or 200K.

        Their annual revenue (2018) is about £110b so a fine of around $4.5b would be possible - not trivial to anybody.

        1. Def Silver badge

          Re: Not Okay Google

          That's still chump change to them though.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Not Okay Google

          well, I very much doubt I'll EVER see a fine of "up to X", reaching the "X". Or anything VAGUELY approaching X.

          1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

            Re: Not Okay Google

            pretty sure the ICO recently issued some fines of 2.5%, I can't off the top of my head recall who they were given to, but IIRC, they were in the 9-figure range.

            1. Avatar of They
              Thumb Up

              Re: Not Okay Google

              Assuming you mean

              Marrriot hotels of 99 million.

              And BA 183 million.

            2. LeahroyNake Bronze badge

              Re: Not Okay Google

              They fined British Airways 1.5% £183 million so it is on the up :)

    5. DontFeedTheTrolls Silver badge
      Headmaster

      Re: Not Okay Google

      That still does not give you the right to record everything anything.

      FIFY

  3. Throatwarbler Mangrove Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    When all you have is a smart home assistant ...

    ... everything begins to look like a hammer.

    1. gerdesj
      Gimp

      Re: When all you have is a smart home assistant ...

      I have a Home Assistant or two around the country. They are bloody big hammers but they are my hammers. Each one has a RabbitMQ and Node-RED on board - those are more like fencing mauls: really, really big hammers. mmmm MQTT, Javascript and big hammers ...

      I have a few design constraints on my IoT systems: No Alexa/Siri/Google/IFTT etc - actually my rule is that the internet should not be *required* for any component to work. Any device capable of harm (!) will have a manual override and a second opinion in the system and be made safe by default on failure elsewhere - this is largely my home underfloor heating at the moment. I have additional room temp sensors and can shutdown the power to each room independently of the main controllers.

      1. Henry Hallan
        Flame

        Re: When all you have is a smart home assistant ...

        My underfloor heating sensors are remote capilliary radiator thermostats. No electricity used, so certainly no IoT!

        There is a better way to do things.

  4. LDS Silver badge
    Devil

    "has violated our data security policies by leaking confidential Dutch audio data."

    Data Google should have never had in the first place... and the data security policy is about covering Google's butts, not users privacy.

    But I'm sure the search for the whistle-blower will be very, very accurate - outing Google is evil is the worst crime in Google's world.

    1. doublelayer Silver badge

      Re: "has violated our data security policies by leaking confidential Dutch audio data."

      It's worth knowing that Google doesn't only give this data to their employees. If you've used recaptcha, it also has an audio version for those who cannot see the images or for those who are fed up with the stupid image tests. The audio version plays a snippet and asks the user to write down what the audio said. I think some of the clips are taken from random youtube ads, but others have the distinct sound of phone calls or basic microphones recording in rooms not designed for recording, and from the distribution, it's clear that this is not intentional degradation of sound to make the captcha harder. I have yet to hear anything sensitive because I don't do captchas that frequently and they only do a few words, but I do distinctly remember the one that came from a phone call and said "is at 9:00 tomorrow morning", so I really hope the first part of that sentence wasn't in the system in case it said what that person would be doing at that time.

  5. Brian Miller

    Microphone + Cloud Computing = Privacy??

    And when did anybody think that hooking up a microphone to transmit audio to somebody else's computer would lead to an increase in privacy?

    Your cell phone listens to you. Your computer listens to you. Everywhere there is a microphone, the thing in listening. Duh. If you want privacy, make sure that all inputs to computing devices are unplugged.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Microphone + Cloud Computing = Privacy??

      OUTPUTS, too, as most of them can be reversed.

  6. Khaptain Silver badge

    “false accept.” noise or words in the background, hotword (like “Ok Google”)

    Hard to imagine what sounds like "Ok Google". Especially as the words need to be said with a fair bit of empty noise on either side.

    - Oh Poodle

    Not a very common phrase.

    Oh, poodle has just done a naughty on the carpet, I really need to let him out more often.. ( nah I doubt that very much) .

    That damned Google assistant has to constantly listen to all and any noise... I would hazard a guess that it actually records far far more than it actually needs to. Google are just damned good at hiding the truth..

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      False accept

      Yes, foreign languages are difficult:

      Oh nee! koeien (flemish for oh no! cows!)

      Ook cake onkel? (some cake too uncle?)

      etcetera.

      The main point remains that Google must ask explicit permission to record this stuff. And yes, training your voice recognition works better if you have lots of samples, but that should not be a reason to listen-in on people.

      1. gerdesj
        Holmes

        Re: False accept

        You are not wrong about languages being a bit tricky: "etcetera." and its usage in written English.

        "et cetera" - Latin - "and so on" or "and to continue on this theme". The full Latin phrase is usually abbreviated to etc. The general rule about using a full stop to denote an abbreviation is often waived when writing etc. I deliberately put the abbreviation etc at the end of the last two sentences but the full stop in each case terminates the sentence and has nothing to do with abbreviation.

        1. Charles 9 Silver badge

          Re: False accept

          I thought it meant "and the rest" to differentiate it from "et alia" (et al) or "and some others".

        2. The Jon

          Re: False accept

          As opposed to "Pete Cetera" who was lead singer with Chicago.

      2. Antron Argaiv Silver badge

        Re: False accept

        Q: In the case of a rare "false accept", does the device flash lights as it would on a normal "OK Google command?

        If not, why not?

        1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

          Re: False accept

          Probably does, and most users probably ignore it / don't notice, as they aren't conciously interacting with the device so wouldn't be looking for the visual cues.

    2. Argh

      There's also "Hey Google", plus the speakers can be configured to keep listening for follow-up actions for a few seconds after responding, without the trigger words. This could gather a lot of extra audio when enabled, as you often only make a single query then go back to talking.

    3. Mathman

      Cocaine Noodles

      Apparently "Cocaine Noodles" used to work. The audio is broken down into phonemes and these are clustered so many phrases could be misinterpreted - especially as there's no context for activating (no prior conversation to help).

      1. Martin-73 Silver badge

        Re: Cocaine Noodles

        Can confirm does not work on my android phone. Can also confirm i am now even more suspicious to the neighbours

  7. HellDeskJockey
    Big Brother

    That is why I don't have a voice assistant in my house. I do like my home tech but only on my terms.

    1. heyrick Silver badge

      Voice assistant?!?

      I don't really care how I interface with my "assistant" (speaking, typing, prodding...) but at the very least I expect "it" to be capable of making tea.

      I don't get these speaker things. It isn't hard to choose a playlist, nor write down an appointment. Are they aimed at the gormless or something?

      1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

        Re: Voice assistant?!?

        Yes.

  8. Filippo

    I confess that I don't mind the concept of a voice assistant too much, and I would use it if it worked properly. That said, "false accepts" happen way, way too often. It's not just "okay poodle"; it seems to have a pretty good chance of triggering on "okay [anything]", and sometimes not even that. Eventually, I gave up and disabled it.

    1. Schultz

      My contrarian viewpoint...

      I think that training the voice recognition based on customer input is reasonable. How else are they going to improve the recognition of local dialects and personal speaking styles? But they need to:

      (1) Offer an opt-out to their customers.

      (2) Train their employees to immediately discard 'training data' that is identifiable and enforce that rule.

      (3) Delete the training data shortly after analysis.

      By assigning training data, randomly, to more than one employee, they could catch employees who flout rule number 2.

      1. LDS Silver badge

        Re: My contrarian viewpoint...

        Wrong:

        (1) Offer an opt-out to their customers.

        Correct:

        (1) Ask customers to opt-in as paid testers

        1. DJO Silver badge

          Re: My contrarian viewpoint...

          Indeed, where privacy of the individual is concerned, "opt-outs" are illegal as are pre-ticked opt-ins, the default must be off and users must be fully informed* of what opting in entails.

          * 1 point text or white text on white backgrounds do not count.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: My contrarian viewpoint...

        You might also believe Donald Trump will foster global peace and file his income tax returns.

    2. jmch Silver badge

      " I don't mind the concept of a voice assistant too much, and I would use it if it worked properly"

      I would use one if it worked locally. Is it THAT difficult to have the speech recognition only locally? Dragon dictate has been doing it for a decade. Updates go only one way, downstream, and the only thing that is sent out is the search request / command, which are executed and then deleted.

      1. heyrick Silver badge

        Is it THAT difficult to have the speech recognition only locally?

        Absolutely not. It can even train itself to your voice.

        Blame the internet.

        My first Android phone, a Motorola, had a voice control mode that only worked with Bluetooth for some reason. It understood all sorts of things like "phone home" and "what time is it".

        Then along came the expectation of high speed internet (and not lethargic EDGE at a euro every 10K) and suddenly everything punts voice data to God only knows where. My current phone, an S9, has Bixby. I've not enabled it. It's a bloody last-years-flagship so has way more than enough processing power to interpret commands locally and not "share with our partners". To hell with that.

        It's like everything else these days. Your voice, your location, your dick size... Unknown companies seem to be intent on gathering as much of this information as they can because they can.

        I agree with the above poster who said this can never become the normal.

        1. Down not across Silver badge

          Re: Is it THAT difficult to have the speech recognition only locally?

          My first Android phone, a Motorola, had a voice control mode that only worked with Bluetooth for some reason. It understood all sorts of things like "phone home" and "what time is it".

          And before any Android or iphones, many Nokia's old Symbian based phones had voice dialling and commands (as did similar feature phones from other manufacturers).

    3. JohnFen Silver badge

      " I would use it if it worked properly"

      I'm halfway with you. I'd use it if it wasn't sending data to the mothership.

  9. ST Silver badge
    WTF?

    Why do people put this in their homes?

    I am honestly trying to understand the reasoning behind this decision. If there is any to begin with.

    It's an always-on device that listens to, and records, everything you say. And then one or more Google employees can eavesdrop on you.

    And somehow this is OK. Or, at a minimum, harmless.

    Yeah, yeah, yeah. Bla-bla-bla privacy policies. Bla-bla-bla we take these incidents very seriously. Bla-bla-bla we are investigating. Sez Google. Does anyone here believe any of that claptrap?

    If you really don't want Google to eavesdrop on you, just don't buy the gizmo. It's really that simple.

    Or, stop complaining. You knew what you were getting into the moment you bought it.

    1. Throatwarbler Mangrove Silver badge
      Holmes

      Re: Why do people put this in their homes?

      "You knew what you were getting into the moment you bought it."

      For readers of this site, that's true. For the average home consumer, or for those just starting to pay attention, this sort of occurrence may still be news.

      1. AK565

        Re: Why do people put this in their homes?

        This is a good point. After being an El Reg subscriber for several years I'm confident I'm one of the least tech-savvy readers. Yet i'm MILES ahead of John Q. Public, at least in the US. Most people have no idea that the privacy issues discussed here even exist, much less how such iasues could affect their lives.

        1. Def Silver badge

          Re: Why do people put this in their homes?

          I think savvyness depends on age.

          My neighbours acquired a Google thingamyjig from somewhere (probably through work, I guess) and were playing around it. Their 16 year old daughter walked into the room, saw it, and immediately walked over and unplugged it before giving them an ear full about why they're so bad. (The device and the parents, equally.)

          She's a smart kid in general, but not into tech like we are.

          1. JohnFen Silver badge

            Re: Why do people put this in their homes?

            Not age. Most of my middle-aged friends would react the same as that 16 year old. I think savviness depends on knowledge and experience.

        2. Bongwater

          Re: Why do people put this in their homes?

          Agree, I use this website because 99% of you guys have already dealt with the issues I am running into now.

          Also, I am amazed at the amount of information random people put here because when I go and research the statements, I always find that they were accurate as far as I could tell.

          You guys helped me solve a Windows Explorer problem 10 years ago roughly while my CEO was watching me do my thing He is cool so it wasn't that nerve wracking but I was a tiny bit nverous I have to admit. El Reg made me look like a genius!

    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Why do people put this in their homes?

      The usual answer to this and many other stupidities is because it's cool - or maybe kool is more appropriate.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Why do people put this in their homes?

        or even Kool Aid?

        1. jake Silver badge

          Re: Why do people put this in their homes?

          The real answer is because Marketing.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Why do people put this in their homes?

        well, in my view it's more to do with the question "why do dogs lick their balls" :(

        1. Spacedinvader
          Happy

          why do dogs lick their balls?

          Because they can

          1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

            Re: why do dogs lick their balls?

            Wow, I'd never have guessed.

          2. Martin-73 Silver badge
            Coat

            Re: why do dogs lick their balls?

            But, so can you

            You just need to be sure the dog trusts you

    3. DontFeedTheTrolls Silver badge
      Headmaster

      Re: Why do people put this in their homes?

      Not defending it, however I know of several older people who have them to keep them company. They've learned to talk to the box and get reasonable answers. At least one of the purveyors is showing this in their adverts these days.

      So the concept is good, its the execution that is wanting

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: At least one of the purveyors is showing this in their adverts these days

        ads do not depict reality, they take it, mutilate it, reshape it and present it as "reality". It works :(

      2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: Why do people put this in their homes?

        "At least one of the purveyors is showing this in their adverts these days."

        Nice of them to find a job for an older actor.

  10. IGotOut

    " Why do people put this in their homes? "

    Because after giving away all their privacy for free stuff for the last couple of decades, they no longer care.

    1. whitepines Silver badge
      Joke

      And as the value of private information goes down, just think about the value to the US commercial prison system of a few tidbits, maybe even out of context, from daily speech, sent to the right folks to make various arrests and convictions for laws people didn't even know existed. Would Google get a financial kickback for each new prisoner?

      Sadly this may be more reality than joke in the future. See the automatic jaywalking convictions and fines in China for the new future...

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      > " Why do people put this in their homes? "

      Alexa, play my favorite playlist

      Alexa, turn the telly on for me

      Alexa, order a large pizza & coke

      Alexa, is 31 stone overweight?

      1. Martin-73 Silver badge

        I at least, am guilty of this. Ok google, turn on the bedroom tv... means 'send the signal to the chinese control box that turns on the relay that applies power to the bedroom tv and the chromecast attached to it.

        I am a bit overweight... BUT, I use this to solve an actual issue. I would have had to bend down under the bed to switch the AC power to both devices (chromecasts run HORRIBLY hot, so I don't trust them even at 5v DC)

        It's been useful to my 87 yr old mum too... she's got VERY restricted mobility and voice control is a boon.

        We're both aware of the issues. That's the main thing here... me, because I have a techish background, and her, because I told her.

        Her response: "I pity them if they think listening to me is gonna make them any money"

        1. Down not across Silver badge

          I at least, am guilty of this. Ok google, turn on the bedroom tv... means 'send the signal to the chinese control box that turns on the relay that applies power to the bedroom tv and the chromecast attached to it.

          I'd just use simple remote controlled socket.

  11. Irongut

    The answer to creepy always-on audio surveillance devices is much simpler.

    DO NOT BUY

    1. doublelayer Silver badge

      I prefer "don't get one", "if you have one, see if you can reprogram them to do something else", and "if you have one and couldn't reprogram it, see how much power you can send through the cable before the device emits a pop and some smoke".

      1. Charles 9 Silver badge

        I wouldn't try the last. There's a chance you may have to explain things to the fire department...and your insurance company.

        1. Martin-73 Silver badge

          @charles 9: I suspect the reason for the downvotes is , a) everyone here knows what they're doing for the most part

          and b) sarcasm combined with hyperbole

          1. Charles 9 Silver badge

            MY problem with sarcasm is that there's ALWAYS someone who will take you literally. Which is why I rarely use it and tend to reply ad if it isn't. I live in Murphy's World.

  12. Mike 137 Bronze badge

    "And then start living your life in a cave."

    I don't live in a cave, despite not using any of this crud. If you think you "need" this kind of service you _need_ to get your head straight again in the real world. However did we survive as a species the many thousands of years we were around before such intrusive tech was invented?

    1. whitepines Silver badge
      Big Brother

      Re: "And then start living your life in a cave."

      The question is how will we survive as a species *after* the adoption of such centrally controlled tech. An informal survey of sci-fi literature on the topic suggests caves might be the best option, preferably on some other planet...

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "And then start living your life in a cave."

      And if they answer, "Not very well given the shorter life expectancies"?

      1. whitepines Silver badge
        Boffin

        Re: "And then start living your life in a cave."

        And if they answer, "Not very well given the shorter life expectancies"?

        We need to start defining life in terms of "independent years" or some such other word. If you're senile with dementia doped up in a care facility or imprisoned for something you said to offend a Glorious Leader, those years shouldn't count as "longer life". Suddenly things get interesting in terms of effective life spans increasing for centuries (handling disease, etc. better), peaking, then declining, if one uses this metric...

      2. JohnFen Silver badge

        Re: "And then start living your life in a cave."

        I value quality of life much more than I value length of life.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "And then start living your life in a cave."

      I actually live in a (home) cave, in the sense that I don't visit friends (because they're too far, and / or I / they can't be bothered, and not one of those gadgets will be installed in my home, ever. Well, great, BUT - I have two growing children, and sooner or later they'll marry (or enter one of those non-marriage relationships), and - despite my best afford (perhaps because of them?), it's not unlikely they will have, in their homes one of those google or amazon "things". What then? Do I refuse to visit my children? Do I refuse to talk to my children on the phone (or whatever device is in use in 10 years time) - when one of those things SITS IN THE BACKGROUND AND LISTENS TO MY CONVERSATION AND RECORDS IT? Do I stop talking to people who have one of those things - downsized of course - clipped to their ears or, better still, implanted, when I go shopping, when I cross the border, when I need to ANY interaction. Do I refuse to speak to - anyone?

      1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

        Re: "And then start living your life in a cave."

        Re your kids I guess you could perhaps try to educate them on the privacy-busting invasiveness and hope they take notice. Occasionally reinforce the point, but don't push too hard or they'll do it anyway to spite you. Make the point that "everyone else has one" is 99.9999% of the time a bad reason to have one. Again, hope they take notice. And accept they'll probably do it anyway just to see what it's like, but know the fad will usually wear off.

        So, you know, that parenting thing.

        1. whitepines Silver badge
          Big Brother

          Re: "And then start living your life in a cave."

          It also doesn't hurt to say something like "you know, I'd love to discuss [controversial topic here that the kids brought up] but I don't feel safe while your [Amazon|Google] speaker is recording me for posterity. If you want anything other than popular media-style sound bytes and generic platitudes from me (i,e. if you want actual conversation between adults), turn it off!"

          1. JohnFen Silver badge

            Re: "And then start living your life in a cave."

            Although I don't personally know anyone who uses these devices, if I did, I'd avoid visiting their home. When I have to visit their home, I'd avoid engaging in anything but the most superficial discussions. And yes, I'd tell them why I'm behaving this way.

            It's pretty much the same way I deal with people who use GMail.

            1. Martin-73 Silver badge

              Re: "And then start living your life in a cave."

              Hey, i resemble that.

              I use gmail because, 1, email is purely for work related stuff, where a public record is GOOD, rather than bad

              And 2, convenience.

              Sure they troll thru it for ads... sometimes they're even useful!

              If i'm discussing the latest sex scandal in my life, or my plans for the takeover of the world, i use Yahoo!. Nobody even remembers that exists

              1. JohnFen Silver badge

                Re: "And then start living your life in a cave."

                "email is purely for work related stuff"

                I don't care about the use of GMail for work-related stuff, because that's all about company business, not about my private life. Also, it's not up the most employees which email system they're going to use for work.

                1. jake Silver badge

                  Re: "And then start living your life in a cave."

                  I have a huge problem with the concept of using gmail for corporate communications. If you can't understand why, you aren't thinking about it very hard.

                  1. JohnFen Silver badge

                    Re: "And then start living your life in a cave."

                    Oh, I agree, and I would never do so for my own businesses. But if I'm just an employee, it's not my business. If my employer want to use the likes of GMail, they have every right to do so. This doesn't affect my personal security/privacy because I don't use a company email account for anything except company business.

                    1. jake Silver badge

                      Re: "And then start living your life in a cave."

                      I disagree. It IS your business as an employee to bring up things that could adversely impact your employer's business.

                      1. JohnFen Silver badge

                        Re: "And then start living your life in a cave."

                        I never said that I don't bring them up. I absolutely do. But I also acknowledge that I am not the one who makes these decisions. There are hills I'm willing to die on, but this is not one of them.

                        However, my original comment still holds firm -- when it comes to my own (noncompany) email, I avoid sending any to GMail accounts as much as I can.

  13. Palpy

    Google: "The leaker is the problem, not the fact that -- "

    " -- we're listening to and recording your conversations."

    Or, as quoted in the story:

    David Monsees: "We just learned that one of these language reviewers has violated our data security policies by leaking confidential Dutch audio data."

    No, the problem is not the leak, it's that you shouldn't be recording and keeping private conversations in the first place.

    It's one thing to record a conversation in a sidewalk cafe. Public place. Quite another to record conversations inside an individual's home. Even the police need a fricking warrant to do that. And terms of agreement cannot confer permission to break the law.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Like solar energy

    suckers are a valuable renewable economic resource. With the difference that is it way more abundant and more renewable than any other resource.

  15. Chris G Silver badge

    Living in a cave.

    When I was looking for my current house, based on price I had a lot of house offers from the Granada region of Spain, you can get a very nice cave house down there for under 50K (Euros). Cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

    1. Martin-73 Silver badge

      Re: Living in a cave.

      When Brexit fails, I shall look into this! Sounds intriguing

  16. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    "not linked to any personal or identifiable information"

    If the recording contains personal identifiable information it doesn't need to be linked to anything else - it is not "all well".

    "We just learned that one of these language reviewers has violated our data security policies"

    Translation: somebody blew the whistle on us.

    1. JohnFen Silver badge

      Plus, my experience is that I define "personal and identifying information" very differently than the major tech companies do.

  17. anonymous boring coward Silver badge

    Oh well... Guess all those who downvoted when I predicted this feel a bit silly now?

    Not that it was very hard to predict.

    About as hard as predicting casualties for early (naive) adopters of "self driving" Teslas.

  18. stuartnz

    Less is More

    Despite having moderate motor skill impairment, I've never seen the appeal of smart home tech. It may help that my flat is barely 60 m2 in total, so if I ever get to the stage where getting up and moving to the device I wish to control is too hard, it will literally be time to prise said device from my cold, dead hands. One week after that would be about the time I'd start considering letting Alexa and/or her creepy cousins into my home life.

    1. JohnFen Silver badge

      Re: Less is More

      "I've never seen the appeal of smart home tech"

      I actually love home automation. But it has to be under my control, which means that it cannot be talking to any machines that aren't mine. None of the consumer IoT garbage that I see on the market is acceptable to me at all -- but there are plenty of alternatives that are.

      1. stuartnz

        Re: Less is More

        I realised after posting that I'd been guilty of egregious generalisation. I guess it's because "cloudy" home automation is the de facto standard today, I tarred all with that same nosy inquisitive brush. Mea culpa!

      2. Martin-73 Silver badge

        Re: Less is More

        Much of the smart tech available that's cloudy... is based on consumer programmable stuff... and thus reprogammable for the true devotee of home automation.

        Hint for you from an electrician though: put a VERY low rated fuse in front of that cheap chinese stuff, and put it in a fire resistant box (a normal electrical wall box with a plate on the front will work, no need to go over the top). But i don't trust them 'out of the box'

        1. JohnFen Silver badge

          Re: Less is More

          "Much of the smart tech available that's cloudy... is based on consumer programmable stuff... and thus reprogammable for the true devotee of home automation."

          This is true, but if you're willing to go to the effort to reprogram them, why not just use the tech that doesn't require reprogramming in the first place?

          1. jake Silver badge

            Re: Less is More

            "why not just use the tech that doesn't require reprogramming in the first place?"

            Or use tech that is designed specifically to be (re)programmed by the end user. Arduino comes to mind, or AtMega328[0] if you want finer control of the hardware. If you like tinkering and haven't discovered these tools (and their ecosystem) yet, I strongly suggest bringing up your .fav search engine and poking around a trifle. Fun, useful, and a learning tool ... what's not to like?

            [0] There are other AVR microcontrollers ... Check 'em out :-)

  19. martinusher Silver badge

    They are still very much a work in progress

    I'm surprised that this website, a website targeted at skilled users of computing technology, has so many commenters who are totally negative about voice assistants. We develop software for a living so we know the problem of developing and testing algorithms. Its 'non trivial', it takes a lot of time and effort to get things to function properly.

    I have these devices in my house. I daresay they can eavesdrop on me but I can easily turn them off if it was important that they were unable to do so. (I'll overlook the numerous ways you can still be listened in on -- starting with the phone, computer and so on and going on to active listening systems -- you wouldn't believe how easy it is to eavesdrop -- if it was that important.) I don't use the assistants that much, I'm not much of a tech enthusiast, but I realize that these systems represent something far bigger than just an amusing gimmick, they're groundbreaking devices in the development of what used to be called man/machine interactions. (For the record, I've never been a fan of GUIs, they were OK for computers way back when but the modern phone/tablet interface is an abomination, its a desperate attempt to make an inadequate interface work)(and it doesn't work properly if you're left handed) The voice assistants have potential beyond mere commands; Alexa can tell when someone's breaking into your house, it can be asked to listen out for smoke alarms and there's even been some quite successful experiments to determine whether it can recognize the sounds of someone having a heart attack. This is cutting edge stuff, and,yes, it has to all go back to AWS or the Google cloud because we don't know yet how to localize the processing, nobody's quite sure what's needed, what should run where and how to package it so it doesn't require a small power station to run it (important if you're dealing with something that's running 24/7 or from a battery).

    So, let's have less of the negativity. If you don't want to play then don't bother with it. (....and definitely don't enable it on your phone) These technologies will evolve, there's no way to wish them away, so we either learn how to use and control them or become a slave to those who can use them.

    BTW -- No, I don't work for Amazon or Google. I'm a retiree -- one of those old people that are regarded with amusement because we don't understand computers....or maybe we do, since we've been riding them up from the beginning....

    1. doublelayer Silver badge

      Re: They are still very much a work in progress

      Way to miss all the points. Let's take your comment apart and look at each piece in detail:

      "I'm surprised that this website, a website targeted at skilled users of computing technology, has so many commenters who are totally negative about voice assistants. We develop software for a living so we know the problem of developing and testing algorithms. Its 'non trivial', it takes a lot of time and effort to get things to function properly."

      And because properly coding software is hard, we should accept massive privacy risks? Why? We don't have a problem with the devices getting the speech recognition wrong sometimes, we have a problem with data being sent out and kept without our permission. In summary, it's not the algorithmic details we have a problem with, but the operations details.

      "I daresay they can eavesdrop on me but I can easily turn them off if it was important that they were unable to do so. (I'll overlook the numerous ways you can still be listened in on -- starting with the phone, computer and so on and going on to active listening systems -- you wouldn't believe how easy it is to eavesdrop --"

      But your computer isn't listening unless you've been infected with malware. If you were infected with malware and it was listening to you, you'd be unnerved and upset, no? That's what these devices do by design, and we find it somewhat creepy.

      "I realize that these systems represent something far bigger than just an amusing gimmick, they're groundbreaking devices in the development of what used to be called man/machine interactions."

      No, they're not. They're pretty basic question/answer devices. They can do a rather limited number of things. It can be a useful interface, but the capabilities these have were available years ago.

      "beyond mere commands; Alexa can tell when someone's breaking into your house, it can be asked to listen out for smoke alarms and there's even been some quite successful experiments to determine whether it can recognize the sounds of someone having a heart attack. This is cutting edge stuff,"

      Yes, those things have been tested. However, given that it can't always recognize whether its own wakeword has been said or not, it can't be that cutting edge. Also, many of those use cases are kind of pointless--assuming the detection of an alarm is meant to alert someone not present, either the homeowner or an emergency service, the potential unreliability of the audio detection could be circumvented by having the alarm itself do the contacting. And once again, our issue is not with the uses of the technology but the abuses by its manufacturers.

      "and, yes, it has to all go back to AWS or the Google cloud because we don't know yet how to localize the processing, nobody's quite sure what's needed, what should run where and how to package it so it doesn't require a small power station to run it (important if you're dealing with something that's running 24/7 or from a battery)."

      That's incorrect. I built a thing that was kind of like a voice assistant. It had fewer questions it could answer, but as I wanted to code some of my own and my major questions were "what is the weather today" and "what time is it in [insert location]", it did just fine. I did this in part because I had an old computer I didn't know what to do with. Did I mention that this occurred in 2008 and the computer in question was built in 2003? Did I mention that all speech recognition happened locally? The devices need a connection to obtain information to say and stream media, but the manufacturer decision to make the devices pitifully powered and outsource all recognition to their systems was not done out of technical inability.

      "So, let's have less of the negativity. If you don't want to play then don't bother with it. (...."

      We don't. However, we still have the right to complain about it being creepy, and if we have the chance to prevent privacy violations that are, you know just technically, illegal, we'll do it. I'm tired of the "don't be negative, just don't use the thing" rubbish. On that basis, I could say "don't read our comments as you've made it clear you don't agree with them", but that would be a stupid thing for me to say.

      "These technologies will evolve, there's no way to wish them away, so we either learn how to use and control them or become a slave to those who can use them."

      There you go. "use *and control*" them. Our issue is that we can't control them. Some people above also don't want to use them, but I have no problem using them or having others do so as long as control can be achieved and used to obtain privacy.

      "BTW -- No, I don't work for Amazon or Google. I'm a retiree -- one of those old people that are regarded with amusement because we don't understand computers....or maybe we do, since we've been riding them up from the beginning...."

      Given your comments, you either don't understand the types of privacy violations these devices do or you don't care. I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt and say you do understand and don't care, but plenty of people who have these devices don't understand what is happening to their data, and get freaked out when they discover it.

    2. jake Silver badge

      Re: They are still very much a work in progress

      "Alexa can tell when someone's breaking into your house, it can be asked to listen out for smoke alarms"

      I was doing that with X10 kit a third of a century ago. Still am. And it isn't listening in on my conversations. Nor does it require an Internet connection.

      "and there's even been some quite successful experiments to determine whether it can recognize the sounds of someone having a heart attack."

      There is an inexpensive inconspi0cuous wearable monitor that can do that ... It doesn't rely on sound, but actual electrical activity of the heart, and is 100% accurate. No Internet connection required.

      1. stiine Bronze badge

        Re: They are still very much a work in progress

        So, it has a cellular connection instead of an internet connection? Or is it not actually the same thing?

        1. jake Silver badge

          Re: They are still very much a work in progress

          Neither cellular nor Internet. Look up X10 ... You can ask your friendly neighborhood doctor about the heart monitor ... or rather monitors, there are several on the market.

      2. Down not across Silver badge

        Re: They are still very much a work in progress

        I was doing that with X10 kit a third of a century ago. Still am. And it isn't listening in on my conversations. Nor does it require an Internet connection.

        I still have bunch of X10 kit around, still working fine doing their job. Combine with CM11 or something and you can build as elaborate systems as you wish.

        I was quite inspired back in the day Steve Ciarcia's Circuit Cellar articles about HCS in Byte and have ever since have various parts of homes that I've lived in automated by X10 and homebrew solutions.

    3. LDS Silver badge

      "they're groundbreaking devices in the development of what used to be called"

      Are they? Even among humans, voice commands can be utterly inadequate and cause misunderstandings or confusion - that's why different ways of communication - using written words and drawings, have been developed through the centuries to convey more precise meanings. Or were forced to use a simplified set of words/phrases with very precise meanings valid in a specific context only.

      Voice commands also mean higher latency. People can usually act much faster than they can talk. We also process visual stimuli far quicker. For example, I hate podcasts - I can read much faster. A weather report with a Sun icon and a temperature below it will instantly give you all the info you need in less time than listening to a voice telling"Today will be sunny with a temperature of 26°C"-

      That said voice could be *another* input channel that cold help to multitask more - and obviously can be quite useful for impaired people (as long as they can hear and talk...). Still, any usefulness is not an excuse to violate users' privacy.

      1. Charles 9 Silver badge

        Re: "they're groundbreaking devices in the development of what used to be called"

        "That said voice could be *another* input channel that cold help to multitask more..."

        Especially since, unlike sight and to a lesser extent smell (taste and touch both require physical contact to work), you can hear pretty well behind you, which is pretty handy if you're trying to catch the attention of someone whose back is turned to you.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: They are still very much a work in progress

      Smart homes, assistants etc are brilliant technology. I would buy one, buy there is a catch...

      My motivation for buying / using one, and the manufacturers incentive in making and selling them are totally different.

      From what I know about human nature, market forces, profit motives, and the place of ethics in business, I trust no manufacturer to make a product that is acceptable to me.

      I work in infosec, and am not a data scientist. However I am scared by the amount of data collection being done by the big players, and absolutely petrified by the prospect of all this data being put in a data lake and mined by someone with a profit motive.

      FWIW, I know of 4 breaches of my personal data, 2 involving my kids as well. My private data is out there, and I am going to cling like hell to stop filling up that lake with my data.

      No, I am not paranoid, but extremely saddened by the promise of technology being subverted into a tool for making a few people very rich and powerful, and carrying out surveillance on the rest of us.

      "Homo sapiens" should do better...

    5. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: They are still very much a work in progress

      "Its 'non trivial', it takes a lot of time and effort to get things to function properly."

      It's exactly because we know that that we don't trust them.

      "I'm a retiree -- one of those old people that are regarded with amusement because we don't understand computers....or maybe we do, since we've been riding them up from the beginning."

      Well so am I. See my comment above.

  20. Evil Auditor Silver badge

    The answer to creepy always-on audio surveillance devices is simple: Do Not Buy.

    There, fixed it for you.

    1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

      For all those making this same point (and incidentally, one I 100% agree with), do bear in mind that if you have an android phone, google is probably doing the same through that. Probably still doing it if you think you've turned it off as well. I would be surprised if iPhones are any different, or "smart" TVs, or indeed any computer with a recent OS on it...

  21. Claverhouse Bronze badge

    Don't Hold Back Anything

    "VRT NWS listened to more than a thousand excerpts, 153 of which were conversations that should never have been recorded and during which the command 'Okay Google' was clearly not given."

    One can't expect them to discriminate; Google and Amazon would find it best if every spoken word, or writing, or all other forms of communication, were sent to them instantly by default: then they could sift through it.

  22. iGNgnorr

    The best false triggering I experienced was when navigating in the car.

    "Take the second exit at the roundabout. Unable to help with sex."

    Wife and I couldn't stop laughing. Absolutely no idea what caused it, neither of us were actually speaking during the preceding minute or so.

    1. David Nash Silver badge
      Coat

      "Unable to help with sex."

      "neither of us were actually speaking during the preceding minute or so"

      So what were you doing?

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    serves you right

    if you're naive (or stupid) to believe what Google says. What pisses me off though is that YOUR naivety (or stupidity) has been making MY tinfoilhat life much harder. Although, arguably, no more smirking from me wifey when I put the hat on in bed.

  24. Charles Calthrop

    why someone would let these huge tech companies into their homes is totally beyond me.

    sadly my teenage children see absolutely no issue with this or have any care about privacy

    will we just accept privacy died on, say, Feb 4 2004? My fear is the generations younger than me are lost to the rights so hard won, but my hope is their children will try to regain the rights we once took for granted

  25. herman Silver badge
    Devil

    While watching a horror movie, you should say 'OK Google' once in a while. That'll learn 'em.

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "Amazingly, the journo team said this week it also found that some people actually used smart speakers to look for porn. "

    I suppose people are searching for porn using voice as their hands are busy.

    1. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge

      Ok Google, Find me hardcore BigTech screwing unsuspecting punters

  27. adam 40 Bronze badge
    Alert

    Standard Practice for Speech Recognition

    When I used to be in speech recognition back in the '80's (when it was considered to be part of AI) this type of thing was standard practice.

    I even got Rhetorex to extend their libraries so I could record and recognise at the same time. Any dodgy misrecognitions (or, even, good ones) could then be used later to re-train the model.

    Even after Google say that they are stopping doing this, you can bet that they will continue, at some other level.

  28. John Robson Silver badge

    Clear signal - assuming you aren't using a voice assistant because your vision is impaired...

    That would never be a use case..

  29. MJI Silver badge

    Not just Google

    I have heard ones asking for Cortina for gay porn.

    Microsoft also farm this work out.

  30. BGatez Bronze badge

    If you're lazy or stupid or indifferent enough to use a "smart" speaker or any of the dopey IOT spybot crap you get what you deserve.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      But then they'll take the rest of us with them. What then? You'll never know if someone's tagged your photo or recorded your voice without your knowledge (unless you intend to install metal detectors at your front door)...

      1. jake Silver badge

        No need for metal detectors.

        I have dawgs.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: No need for metal detectors.

          Wonder how you'd fare if someone packed an ultrasonic emitter in their pocket. That would drive your dogs nuts and keep them away for their comfort.

          1. jake Silver badge

            Re: No need for metal detectors.

            Nope. When the dawgs detect an anomaly, they alert me. That's kind of the point, no?

            BTW, it's a myth that "ultrasonic sound drives dogs nuts". Some dogs might start getting frantic if their owner doesn't acknowledge that something is wrong, but that's the stupid human's fault for not listening to their dawg ...

  31. Danny 2 Silver badge

    I bought two of them for my parents

    ...and I'll be taking one back for myself.

    My dad was diagnosed with dementia and he asks me silly questions, and he asks me interesting factual questions.

    He asked google, "Who were the Famous Five?", and it correctly responded, "Gordon Smith, Bobby Johnstone, Lawrie Reilly, Eddie Turnbull and Willie Ormond."

    Now for most folk The Famous Five, if you google it, is a series of Enid Blyton books. But my dad has a Leith accent, and they/it knew he was talking about 1950s Hibs.

    That is scary. They can localise a search according to accent so accurately. I doubt any of your parents would get the same results unless they were from Leith.

    I am going to take it to my flat because it gives you free phone calls. I am going to keep it unplugged until I need to phone someone. This is Uber level of disruption to the telecoms.

    1. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge
      Coat

      Re: I bought two of them for my parents

      I am going to take it to my flat because it gives you free phone calls. I am going to keep it unplugged until I need to phone someone

      ...500 miles away to have a haver

      1. Danny 2 Silver badge

        Re: I bought two of them for my parents

        The Famous Five is havering? Typical Rangers or Celtic or Hearts or Dundee or Dundee United or Partick Thistle or Queen's Park or Queen of the South or Kilmarnock fan. There is a reason Beorge Best became a Hibee.

        I could talk 500 miles, and I could talk 500 more, but I have broken my specs so I probably won't be posting here much in the near future. I can't actually read it without making it huge.

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