Germany orders Google to stop listening in on audio recordings

Germany orders Google to stop listening in on audio recordings
Google Home (left) and Amazon Echo are equipped with Google Assistant and Alexa. Photo: DPA
A German data protection official has convinced Google to stop human workers from listening to audio recorded by its digital assistant across the EU, after a leak showed staff could hear private conversations.

“To provisionally protect the rights of privacy of data subjects for the time being,” Hamburg commissioner for data protection Johannes Caspar had begun the legal procedure to stop the practice for three months from August 1st.

That is the maximum duration allowed under the European Union's GDPR privacy legislation.

Preempting a legal order, Google said it would suspend human evaluation across the 28-nation EU for that period, Caspar's office said in a statement Thursday.

Earlier this month, Dutch-language conversations recorded by Google Assistant, the artificial intelligence (AI)-powered system for voice interactions, were leaked to Belgian broadcaster VRT.

Audio files included discussions of users' love lives and children, as well as containing personal data like addresses.

The Californian company suspects the leak came from a language expert who had been contracted to help improve voice recognition by comparing the recordings against the AI's transcripts.

But it insisted that human listeners had access to at most 0.2 percent of audio data and that the files were not tied to user accounts.

It also highlighted that users have the option to deactivate archiving of data files or regularly delete them automatically.

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'Full review'

“We are conducting a full review of our safeguards in this space to prevent misconduct like this from happening again,” Google said.

“Employees commissioned by Google were able to gather personal information – some of it sensitive – within the private and intimate sphere of the persons concerned,” the data commissioner's office said.

The authority added that the devices on offer from the likes of Apple, Amazon and Google are “proving to be highly risky for the privacy of those affected”.

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Not only owners of the gadgets risk their private information reaching unwanted ears, but also “all those who come into contact with it” like other members of the household or guests.

“Other providers of speech assistance systems, such as Apple or Amazon, are invited to also swiftly review the implementation of appropriate measures,” Caspar's office said.

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