If you use Android’s Google Assistant, chances are you’ve noticed your phone occasionally waking up without your “OK Google” prompt. This can be a minor annoyance when you’re not speaking to anyone. But if it happens when you’re having a conversation, then Google will have also heard a short except of your conversation.
Google hires contractors to listen to some of its Assistant’s recordings and transcribe them into text. Belgian news outlet VRT NWS reports that over 1000 of these recordings have been leaked. Of them, 153 of them were not prompted by an “OK Google” voice activation command at all. These were often recordings of conversations containing a lot of private information.
Google has issued a statement saying that this is the fault of one of its hired contractors, and that the company is investigating the matter.
Under normal circumstances, only 0.2% of recordings are reviewed by hired language experts. This is necessary to improve the accuracy of the Google Assistant and other speech related tech. The hired contractors are also instructed to only transcribe bits of the voice recording that’s directed to the Google Assistant, and not background conversations or other noises. Recordings are also not tied to Google accounts so that they remain unidentifiable.
The issue with this current situation is when the Android device experiences what the company calls a “false accept”. This is when the device interprets part of the background noise to be an activation command like “OK Google”. When this happens during a conversation, often private and identifiable information that’s being conveyed gets recorded.
Google states that it has a number of protections in place to prevent false accepts from occurring. The leak is unfortunate, but considering there’s still a lot of false accepts among the leaked recordings, it’s clear that there’s a lot of room for improvement.