Google employees and subcontractors are listening to recordings gleaned from Google Home smart speakers and the Google Assistant smartphone app.

A report from Belgian news outlet VRT NWS showed that Google regularly uses staff and subcontractors to transcribe audio recordings taken from its network of home devices for the stated purpose of improving its speech recognition technology. A whistleblower employed as a subcontractor for Google shared over a thousand recordings with VRT NWS, many of which were recorded unintentionally and without the user’s consent.  

While the technology and devices are meant to be restricted to requests starting with the phrase “OK Google,” VRT NWS found that over 150 of the recordings were either made accidentally or where the command “was clearly not given.” Content of the recordings included conversations between parents and children, financial information, potential domestic violence, and medical-related questions. 

“[T]his work is of crucial importance to develop technologies sustaining products such as the Google assistant,” said a spokesman for the company, who added that roughly “0.2 percent of all audio fragments” were being analyzed by employees.

Google claims the recordings are stripped of any personally identifiable information, e.g. user names are replaced with serial numbers, etc. This ultimately does little to protect user privacy, since re-identification May be possible.

“[I]t doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recover someone’s identity; you simply have to listen carefully to what is being said… these employees have to look up every word, address, personal name or company name on Google or on Facebook. In that way, they often soon discover the identity of the person speaking,” said the VRT NWS report.

Read the VRT NWS story here