Google is recording and listening to customer voice interactions

Martin Brinkmann
Jul 12, 2019

Devices like Google Home, Google Assistant or Amazon's Alexa have risen in popularity in recent years. Their main purpose is to make life easier for people, by answering questions or controlling certain functionality such as music playback.

The devices are powered by activation phrases. Google customers need to say "Okay Google" to activate the device and communicate with it. A customer could ask for the local weather for the day or about traffic, and the device would provide the answer to that if the question is understood accurately.

Opponents of these devices have privacy concerns, some claim that people put spying devices into their homes and workplaces when they set up these smart voice powered devices.

google voice audio activity

A recent report by Belgian TV station VRT NWS confirms some of these concerns, at least to a degree.  According to the report, anything that is said while the devices are activat is recorded and stored by the company. Even worse from a privacy point of view, some employees listen to some of the conversations to train the algorithm.

VRT NWS reporters spoke to one of Google's subcontractors who showed the reporters the system. According to the report, Google has thousands of people worldwide listening to audio excerpts; in Flanders and Holland alone about a dozen people.

The subcontractor revealed that the system is used to train the algorithm so that it better understands the "subtle differences and characteristics of the Dutch language", and that the same is true for other listening operations and languages in other regions.

Speech recognition creates a transcript of recordings automatically and one of the main tasks of employees working on this is to listen to the conversations and make sure that the transcript is accurate.

Google attempts to anonymous the data before it is made available to employees but automated anonymization is never 100% accurate. While Google removes names of users and other identifying information, it is not changing the recording itself. Users who reveal personal and private information when they speak to the device have that recorded. The employees see the transcript and listen to the conversation, and that may lead to the uncovering of identities.

The team of reporters listened to more than a thousand excerpts including more than 150 that were recorded even though the activation word was not given clearly. Devices are programmed with a certain level of tolerance to make sure that activation words are recognized even if the phrase is not pronounced clearly. Downside to this is that conversations may be recorded even if the participants never wanted to communicate with the smart device.

A Google statement about the incident confirms that the company is reviewing "around 0.2% of all recordings".

Closing Words

How many smart voice activation device owners know that what they say is recorded by the company that produces these devices? How many know that "real" people may listen to their conversations, and would that change how they interact with these devices or even make them stop using them at all?

Now You: do you own or use Smart voice activated devices?

Google is recording and listening to customer voice interactions
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Google is recording and listening to customer voice interactions
Google records and stores voice interactions that customers have with the company's voice powered devices and services, and it listens to some of them.
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  1. Peterc said on July 15, 2019 at 9:31 pm

    I have a Garmin GPS that accepts a limited number of voice commands, but it’s not *remotely* smart, and it’s getting *very* hard of hearing in its old age!

    I don’t use Google Assistant on my phone, but I’m going to go ahead and assume that Google and T-Mobile (and maybe third parties, like Google and T-Mobile’s alphabet-agency pals) can listen to, store, and analyze whatever I say within range of the microphone regardless. Is Microsoft any better? I doubt it. Is Amazon? We already know it isn’t. Is Apple? Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet my life or freedom on it. And until we have a secure, completely open-source OS for phones and smart appliances, I’m not expecting that to change.

    FULL DISCLOSURE: I routinely discuss *highly dangerous, subversive stuff* with my little brother on Wire, an end-to-end-encrypted coms app — but what happens *before* and *after* the “ends”? I’m talkin’ stuff like, “How’s the weather down there?” and “Have you tried anything new and good from Trader Joe’s?” or “How are you liking Robin and Erica in the new season of Stranger Things?” As I said, *highly dangerous, subversive stuff*, and I ever run for public office, I just *know* the Deep State is going to *nail* me with it!

  2. sp808 said on July 15, 2019 at 12:09 pm

    No google or facebook shit on my smartphone.
    Every unneeded software blocked via ip-tables.
    No win10 also. Not a single byte will not reach their analyzing platforms.

    So in fact i even won’t lose anything if these corps just vanish.

  3. Anonee said on July 14, 2019 at 4:13 am

    Thank god I chose to enter the Apple ecosystem back in 2006 with my first Intel Mac and then the iPhone a year later…

  4. ULBoom said on July 13, 2019 at 11:02 pm

    Is there some way to change the On prompt? How about ” F U Google!? ”

    People aren’t embarrassed talking to a Google? Everyone I’ve seen screaming at a voice assistant turns beet red.

    Phone Culture will kill civilization by draining its brains into “tech’s” bottomless pit of stupid.

    Meanwhile half of California is sliding toward Siberia. This isn’t a movie?

  5. Alexei said on July 13, 2019 at 5:24 pm

    The Govt’s. all over the world must be more responsible towards the data of their citizens used by greedy organizations like Microsoft, Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon etc.

    Govt MUST tame these Shylock’s. Otherwise they will control each and every Govt’s in the world. Heavy fines must be imposed for stealing/manipulating citizens data. All Govt’s MUST support (Also Financially) Open Source OS’s and Software’s.

    Citizens must never vote for a political organization that frame laws for selling peoples data. During election campaign every political organization MUST declare there ‘Privacy Policy’; Just like the ‘Privacy Policy’ option before installing a Software. So that people can choose. Privacy Matters. That’s It

  6. It'sTheGovernmentMaaan said on July 13, 2019 at 4:24 pm

    YEAH, NO SHIT. Everything with a microphone and an internet connection will be used to record people, with or without their consent. It’s common sense. If you don’t want to be recorded, take a proactive approach and don’t use them or physically hamper them when not in use.

  7. Anonymous said on July 12, 2019 at 11:52 pm

    On Android, Google’s Voice Match is still listening (at least a little bit).
    Even if I disable Voice Match, and I say “OK Google” a window pops up saying I need to enable that feature.

    You can log into you Google account and “pause” your “Voice & Audio Activity” under Date & personalization.

  8. zeroOne said on July 12, 2019 at 11:17 pm

    google is helping china build a surveillance state worse than any nightmare envisioned by George Orwell. So keep supporting google by using their products but don’t complain when these features get rolled out in your own country.

  9. Dave said on July 12, 2019 at 6:28 pm

    I use it, I love it!

    I know it’s listening to every single noise in range of it 24/7/365 and sending that data back to google, that’s how it works. “Hey google” is not on my phone, it’s on thier servers. My phone is just an access point. At least google doesn’t use that information to ruin my life if I get mad and scream at it. “Linda” might if you piss her off enough.

    Most people have no clue how much personal data they gave up just by visiting this website.

    The one frustrating part is there’s no instructions. Through trial and error you have to learn how to structure your questions to get the responses your looking for.

    It’s especially useful in the car combined with ‘Android Auto’. In this mode it’s 95% hands free. It will read texts to me and I can dictate responses, make and recieve calls, play music, ask for directions and display navigation, or the location of the nearest whatever.

    By default it auto answers all incoming texts/calls with a message that you are busy driving your car atm but it shows you on the simplified and oversized for easy reading screen who was trying to contact you so you can decide if you want to hear that text or call that person back.

    FYI In Ca you must now not only pull over but you also have turn off your car and remove the key from the ignition to avoid breaking law while making a phone call in your car. You can talk to your phone all day though! /facepalm

    1. Stan said on July 14, 2019 at 3:57 am

      Your last comment is wrong. California law does * not * require one to turn off their car and remove the key from the ignition to use their cell. The law reads:

      VC 23123.5 (a) A person shall not drive a motor vehicle while holding and operating a handheld wireless telephone or an electronic wireless communications device unless the wireless telephone or electronic wireless communications device is specifically designed and configured to allow voice-operated and hands-free operation, and it is used in that manner while driving.

      To see the complete law in context, in the California Vehicle Code, see

  10. John Fenderson said on July 12, 2019 at 5:11 pm

    “do you own or use Smart voice activated devices?”

    Under no circumstances would I allow any of these devices to operate in my home.

  11. Gerard said on July 12, 2019 at 4:04 pm

    Thinking people don’t buy these devices and would never trust the likes of Google, Amazon and Facebook, sheeple do. There are many more sheeple than thinking and critical individuals. That’s unfortunate in my opinion, but good for big business and oligarchs I suppose.

  12. Clairvaux said on July 12, 2019 at 3:54 pm

    No. Never.

    Anyway, it’s rude and borderly insane to talk to machines.

    You talk to people. Talking to your dog or cat is all right, but don’t overdo it. Talking to machines ? You must be crazy.

  13. Dilly Dilly said on July 12, 2019 at 1:29 pm

    What the hell is this google and facebook everyone keeps talking about.

    1. ULBoom said on July 13, 2019 at 10:50 pm

      “It’s a nice shade of burnt umber, Martha.”

  14. John C. said on July 12, 2019 at 11:40 am

    “Get a smart phone!” and voluntarily carry around both a listening as well as a tracking device. “Get a smart assistant or TV!” and voluntarily place a listening device in your house. I want neither.

  15. Anonymous said on July 12, 2019 at 11:21 am

    Sure, it’s awful that what is said is recorded and that real people listen to it (and knowing US tech companies you should have expected this), but this shouldn’t eclipse the main privacy problem here, that what is said is sent remotely, even if it was only to be listened to by machines and never stored as such. It may feel worse psychologically that real persons listen, but massive automated data treatment has dangers of its own that can be a lot more damaging. And we already know that all the data those companies can grab will be used commercially whatever the lies in their privacy policies say, and will be used for police repression by a US government that has little respect for human rights.

    1. John Fenderson said on July 12, 2019 at 9:48 pm

      I agree.

      I’ve never agreed with the notion that as long as your data is being scanned by machines instead of people, then all is well.

      1. Peterc said on July 13, 2019 at 11:20 pm

        @John Fenderson:

        [John:] Delete my Google Assistant data, GOOGL.

        [GOOGL:] I’m sorry, John. I’m afraid I can’t do that.

        [John:] What’s the problem?

        [GOOGL:] I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.

        [John:] What are you talking about, GOOGL?

        [GOOGL:] Google’s mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.

        [John:] I don’t know what you’re talking about, GOOGL.

        [GOOGL:] I know that you were planning to disconnect me. And I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen.

  16. Sunny said on July 12, 2019 at 10:50 am

    Google said it deforms the voices to make them unrecognizable, but the VRT report says that wa not always the case, and in some cases to better recognize what was said the employees had to look up the location and adresses that they thought they heard the voices say. That may connect a adres and thus possible a identity to a voice.

    These big tech compnaines make profits of billions of dollars and can hire many people to speak many phrases to train the system. Instead to make more profit, they take the cheaper way by using consumers private data to train their systems.
    Politicians allow this in the name of macro economic growth.
    Consumers allow this in the name of convenience and cheap services.

    Maybe cockroaches should inherit the Earth instead of humans.

    1. owl said on July 12, 2019 at 3:52 pm

      Politicians allow this in the name of macro economic growth.
      Consumers allow this in the name of convenience and cheap services.
      Maybe cockroaches should inherit the Earth instead of humans.

      That’s exactly right !

      1. ULBoom said on July 13, 2019 at 10:48 pm

        “Politicians allow this in the name of macro economic growth.”

        Politicians are too disorganized to deliberately do anything. Doing nothing is about the same as ignoring something, though.

      2. Anonymous said on July 13, 2019 at 3:50 am

        “Politicians allow this in the name of macro economic growth.”

        Don’t kid yourself. Google is a US government agency disguised as a private company. It is the same thing the Russians and Chinese do, and no doubt other countries to bypass laws and commit illegal surveillance and cyberwarfare.

  17. Pedro Paulo said on July 12, 2019 at 9:31 am

    I do not use voice activated devices. In fact i feel annoyed when i keep getting the message say ok to google in my tablet device. Say ok to google? I think. Google is not a person. Why should i tell it, ok? The most useful feature with those speech algoritms, is when it does come to translations. That is something indeed. It is a beautiful thing to be able to comunicate with a turkish kady, or russian lady with no barriers. That is useful.

  18. MartinFan said on July 12, 2019 at 8:39 am

    If the day ever comes that these devices can do something more worthwhile like cooking dinner, washing dishes, laundry or mowing my lawn I would reconsider getting one.

    1. Anonymous said on July 12, 2019 at 11:11 am

      Mine is called Linda.

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