Google Assistant Update Seeks To Quiet Public Outcry Over Privacy Violations

Google Headquarters
After catching heat for hiring subcontractors tasked with listening to audio recordings from its smart products, Google is making some changes to its privacy policies in hopes of easing concerns among consumers. It is basically an effort towards better transparency, as Google outlines in a new blog post on the subject.

"It's clear that we fell short of our high standards in making it easy for you to understand how your data is used, and we apologize. When we learned about these concerns, we immediately paused this process of human transcription globally to investigate, and conducted a full review of our systems and controls. Now we want to share more about how audio recordings work, and some changes we’re making," Google says.

Much of the blog post reiterates Google's existing policies. For example, Google says it does not retain audio recordings by default, noting "this has been the case, and will remain unchanged." However, users have the option of opting in to the Voice and Audio Activity (VAA) setting when setting up their Assistant. According to Google, opting in will make it easier for the Assistant to recognize a user's voice over time.

One of the updates Google is making to its privacy policy is to highlight the use of human reviewers when enabling VAA.

"If you’re an existing Assistant user, you’ll have the option to review your VAA setting and confirm your preference before any human review process resumes. We won’t include your audio in the human review process unless you’ve re-confirmed your VAA setting as on," Google say.s

Google is also adding "greater security protections" to the collection audio snippets, with an "extra layer of privacy filters." It's not clear what exactly those are, though Google goes on to state that it will be adding a way to adjust how sensitive a Google Assistant device is at recognizing prompts like "Hey Google." The idea is to reduce the number of times Google Assistant records and transmits an audio snippet that it should not have.

This is a key concern, because in a scathing report, subcontractors said they were able to hear private conversations that never should have been record. Examples included instances of people having intercourse, among other things.

At the beginning of the year, Google said it expected to have sold 1 billion Assistant-enabled devices by the end of January. This was in response to Amazon bragging it had sold 100 million Alexa devices to date. Given the prominence of smart devices with recording capabilities, the issue of privacy is as big as it ever has been.