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Google to cease listening to Assistant recordings in EU pending investigation

Google is under investigation by Germany for possibly breaking GDPR requirements following reports of the company using humans to quality check recordings of private voice queries to the Assistant. While the investigation is underway, Google will reportedly cease listening to recordings from EU customers.

Last month, privacy controversy was stirred up when it was discovered that Google was hiring contractors to listen, transcribe, and review queries made to the Google Assistant. More shockingly, given the Assistant’s tendency to mishear the hotword, these contractors were inadvertently provided with private conversations taking place in people’s homes.

Now, as reported by The Verge, this controversy is coming to a head, as Germany’s Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information has released a press statement indicating that they are investigating Google’s handling of Assistant voice recordings. Additionally, Google must temporarily cease their manual review of Assistant queries in the EU, as a proactive step to protect citizens in the event that the three-month investigation finds Google to be in violation of the GDPR.

Commissioner Johannes Caspar further explained his decision to have Google immediately stop listening to Assistant recordings and laid out an initial plan for the investigation.

The use of speech assistance systems in the EU must comply with the data protection requirements of the GDPR. In the case of the Google Assistant, there are currently considerable doubts about this. […] As a first step, further questions about the functioning of the speech analysis system need to be answered. The data protection authorities will then have to decide on the final measures that are necessary for their data protection-compliant operation.

In a statement to The Verge, Google indicated that they’ve already ceased what they call “language reviews” and are working with German authorities on the best course of action to help customers better understand how their data may be used.

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. These reviews help make voice recognition systems more inclusive of different accents and dialects across languages. We don’t associate audio clips with user accounts during the review process, and only perform reviews for around 0.2% of all clips.

9to5Google’s Take

This is a tough situation for everyone involved. The commissioner is absolutely right to raise concerns about how precisely Google is handling the privacy of these Assistant recordings and the sorts of contractors they choose to hire to do the job. However, on the opposite end, ceasing manual review in the EU will surely further prevent Google from launching the Assistant and Nest Home devices in more European countries.

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Avatar for Kyle Bradshaw Kyle Bradshaw

Kyle is an author and researcher for 9to5Google, with special interests in Made by Google products, Fuchsia, and Stadia.

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