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Google listens to conversations recorded by its smart devices

Google uses contractors to listen to conversations and records from users of its smart devices. Credit: Pixabay

Google hires people to listen to the recordings and conversations of users of the technology company's smart home devices and apps, some of which are being collected without users' consent, VRT reported on Wednesday.

An anonymous subcontractor of the global technology giant entrusted to the Flemish information website access over a thousand recorded conversations via Google Home's smart speakers or the Google Assistant smartphone app, of which 153 were recorded without the knowledge of the user.

Among the many employees recruited by Google around the world, including Belgium, the latter has listened and analyzed a series of recordings captured and stored by Crowdsource's intelligent wizards, a platform on which anyone can contribute to improve the algorithms of the company by describing images, audio extracts, videos …

Recordings captured by smart devices are kept in a "hidden" area of ​​the platform accessible only to authorized personnel, depending on the point of sale. The employee's task is to "process" the recordings to help the device better understand the intricacies of human language.

"Employees should listen carefully to describe the fragment as best as possible," the outlet says, adding that subcontractors are asked to describe the cut fragment in detail: "Do you hear a female voice or a male voice? Is it a child? What do we say? Each comma and cough and comma is written. "

"It's definitely my own voice"

The audio fragments captured and stored by the devices would be devoid of any information allowing the employee to listen again to identify the people behind them. User names and other information are removed from audio files.

However, a crucial part of the employee's tasks is to help devices define words that he has not been able to understand or deal with, meaning "employees who listen to must search for every word, address, name or company name 'for which the spelling is used. uncertain, potentially facilitating the task of fully or partially identifying the speaker.

Some fragments that VRT listened to allowed the store to locate and locate users and visit them at home to view the recordings.

"It's definitely my own voice," said a Flemish citizen while listening to an audio clip, while a couple from the town of Waasmunster said he "recognized" their children's voices immediately -children.

Problems with hearing

Most audio clips reviewed by the Dutch-language news site originate from the direct interaction of users with smart appliances, resulting from the specific "Ok Google" voice command.

Depending on the point of sale, the small characters in the smart speaker indicate that recording and storing these audio fragments is an option enabled by default – but the small print does not say that people will listen to them.

But this only includes voice recordings captured after the user has issued the command "Ok Google", but the VRT said that more than a hundred fragments to which access had have been recorded without his knowledge, because smart appliances are activated by any word like Google "or whenever the user" accidentally presses a button "or" gives an order without knowing it ".

The thousands of conversations analyzed by the point of sale included conversations in the bedroom, conversations between parents and children, but also "violent arguments" and "professional telephone conversations containing a lot of confidential information."

High technology overrides privacy

The findings of the Flemish point of sale follow information from Bloomberg in April that Amazon employees were also involved. review conversations and recordings stocked by the company's smart home assistant, Alexa.

Like Google's contractors, Amazon around the world listens to thousands of recordings and conversations to improve businesses' smart appliances and strengthen their algorithms as proof of their success.

In the case of Google, the company published a series of videos to combat the concerns that he has been spying on.

Contacted by the VRT about the records it obtained, the company acknowledged that it had examined fragments to improve its technology, but that it only concerned a small number of clips, which make up "only 0.2% of all audio clips".

The company also said that the work done by its subcontractors was "crucial for the development of technologies that enable products such as Google Assistant", posing the question that torments Google, Facebook and other technology giants. since their launch. -out their high-performance products: how far can technology go beyond the limits of privacy?

Gabriela Galindo
The Brussels Times

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