Have One of These Devices? Amazon and Google Employees May Have Been Recording You


It should go without saying, but trusting big tech with your information may be something you want to think twice about.

It should have gone without saying before it was revealed that Amazon had human beings listening to what you said to its devices.

In April, a report revealed that workers reviewed up to 1,000 audio clips in a shift from Alexa devices around the world. The report described workers hearing clips of a child screaming for help and an alleged sexual assault, among other disturbing content.

“We only annotate an extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings in order [to] improve the customer experience,” a statement from Amazon at the time read.

“For example, this information helps us train our speech recognition and natural language understanding system, so Alexa can better understand your requests, and ensure the service works well for everyone.”

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However, the details didn’t inspire confidence. Nor did it inspire confidence when it was reported another tech giant was doing the exact same thing.

A report from Belgian outlet VRT NWS last week revealed that “Google employees are systematically listening to audio files recorded by Google Home smart speakers and the Google Assistant smartphone app.”

“Google has continually claimed that it doesn’t eavesdrop,” the outlet reported.

“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.'”

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However, that clearly wasn’t accurate, especially because the leak allegedly came from one of their Dutch partners.

“Throughout the world — so also in Belgium and the Netherlands — people at Google listen to these audio files to improve Google’s search engine,” the news outlet reported.

“VRT NWS was able to listen to more than a thousand recordings. Most of these recordings were made consciously, but Google also listens to conversations that should never have been recorded, some of which contain sensitive information.”

The reporters said that they 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.”

“This is undeniably my own voice,” one man told the reporters. Another family said they could pick out the voices of their son and grandson in the clip they were confronted with.

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According to Technology Review, the clips were leaked by a contractor that Google uses to transcribe them.

While most of the recordings were intentional, just like in the case of Amazon, some of them were captured accidentally when the wake word — that precedes a spoken command — or something that sounds like it was spoken.

Just like in the Amazon case, there were reports of inappropriate conversations being captured and listened to.

“One of our three independent sources says he had to describe a recording where he heard a woman who was in definite distress,” VRT News reported.

“What are employees supposed to do with such information? We are told that there are no clear guidelines regarding such cases. It is, however, an important ethical matter. Employees only receive specific directions when it comes to account numbers and passwords. Those are marked as sensitive information.”

The recordings also found that there were a lot of searches for medical advice and (at least among men) pornography.

Google first issued a statement about the report through its spokesman in Belgium.

“This happens by making transcripts of a small number of audio files”, the spokesman said, adding that “this work is of crucial importance to develop technologies sustaining products such as the Google Assistant” and that only “about 0.2 percent of all audio fragments” were listened to.

Then, Google’s product manager of search David Monsees admitted there was a leak in a blog post.

“We just learned that one of these language reviewers has violated our data security policies by leaking confidential Dutch audio data,” Monsees wrote last Thursday.

“Our Security and Privacy Response teams have been activated on this issue, are investigating, and we will take action. We are conducting a full review of our safeguards in this space to prevent misconduct like this from happening again.”

However, you should remember that this is part of the terms and conditions that Google sets for its assistant devices, the same way that Amazon does for Alexa. If you feel uncomfortable about it, this is something you should consider before buying a smart speaker.

Remember, these devices are recording and storing your conversations remotely and there’s nothing that could stop another leak like this from happening.

This isn’t supposed to happen. Here’s Google’s privacy statement, according to CNET:

“We restrict access to personal information to Google employees, contractors, and agents who need that information in order to process it. Anyone with this access is subject to strict contractual confidentiality obligations and may be disciplined or terminated if they fail to meet these obligations,” the statement read.

That clearly didn’t happen here,

In this case, the leak fell into the hands of a reputable journalistic outfit. Could information like this fall into the hands of a bad actor? For all we know, it already has.

Until the privacy concerns on these devices are ironed out, those who are concerned about something like this should be very cautious about any voice-activated device or piece of software, particularly when we know Google and Amazon are transcribing select conversations.

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C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014.
C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014. Aside from politics, he enjoys spending time with his wife, literature (especially British comic novels and modern Japanese lit), indie rock, coffee, Formula One and football (of both American and world varieties).
Morristown, New Jersey
Catholic University of America
Languages Spoken
English, Spanish
Topics of Expertise
American Politics, World Politics, Culture