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A man walks past a Google sign outside with a span of the Bay Bridge at rear in San Francisco, May 1, 2019. VOA

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’ bedroom talks 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.


In a statement released late Thursday, 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.

“This applies not only to people who run a speech assistant, but to all those who come into contact with it, for example if they live in a household in which devices such as Google Assistant are installed are used,” said the Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information.

A Google spokesperson said it 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.

According to the German anti-trust regulator, Google was able to gather personal information — some of it sensitive — within the private and intimate sphere of the persons concerned from the recorded conversations.


The transcribers heard just everything: personal information, bedroom talks, domestic violence and what not. Wikimedia Commons

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 1 August 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.

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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”.

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. (IANS)


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