Google still uses humans to review Assistant queries, raises privacy concerns

A report from a Belgian network, VRT, has uncovered how Google is using human subcontractors to help transcribe and improve its Assistant speech-recognition systems around the globe and how this could be a privacy concern (via BoingBoing).

We knew that Google was doing something similar for its Duplex systems to ensure that everything runs smoothly using the automated calling method. That said, having humans review Assistant queries poses potentially serious data privacy problems as these subcontractors could, and likely have, listened to sensitive information such as names, addresses, and further personal information.

Even more concerning is that some of the contractors who review these Google voice assistant recordings claim that they often would review audio from people not even talking directly to their Google Home devices. The devices would often mishear conversations and wrongly pick out their assigned “wake-words” — usually “Hey Google” or “Ok Google.”

The whistleblower told VRT that he would often transcribe around 1,000 recordings per week in both Dutch and Flemish. He went on further to explain that one recording appeared to record a domestic violence incident.

A spokesperson for Google told Wired that only 0.2 percent of all recordings end up being transcribed by an actual person though. They also stated that these audio clips never contain any identifying information from the person who originally recorded them.

The problem here is that this doesn’t account for me or you potentially sharing private or sensitive information during our own recordings. This is where legal proceedings could be leveled at Google, according to Michael Veale, a tech policy researcher at London’s Alan Turing Institute.

Veale told Wired that personal disclosure of this information might not meet the requirements set within the EU’s recent GDPR regulations. “You have to be very specific on what you’re implementing and how,” said Veale. “I think Google hasn’t done that because it would look creepy.”

You can see the full investigation in the video link below (it’s pre-translated):

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Avatar for Damien Wilde Damien Wilde

Damien is a UK-based video producer for 9to5Google. Find him on Twitter @iamdamienwilde. Email

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