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Google confirms its staff listening in on Google Home conversations

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As anyone who owns a Google Home will tell you, Google gets asked a lot of strange, personal and boring questions.

But while Google Home users might have thought their conversations with Google were secure and private, the massive company has admitted that its workers do have access to some users’ audio recordings.

In a statement, Google explained that a small number of recordings are transcribed by international language experts in an attempt to improve Google’s listening ability.

"We partner with language experts around the world to improve speech technology by transcribing a small set of queries - this work is critical to developing technology that powers products like the Google Assistant," Google said.

"Language experts only review around 0.2 per cent of all audio snippets, and these snippets are not associated with user accounts as part of the review process.”

The statement comes after some Dutch audio data was leaked, with Google launching an investigation into what occurred.

"We just learned that one of these reviewers has violated our data security policies by leaking confidential Dutch audio data.

"Our Security and Privacy Response teams have been activated on this issue, are investigating, and we will take action.

"We are conducting a full review of our safeguards in this space to prevent misconduct like this from happening again."

Is Amazon Alexa spying on me too?

According to an investigation by Bloomberg in April, Amazon has a similar process to Google in which teams of language experts record, listen and transcribe anonymous voice recordings to improve Amazon Echo’s ability to understand and respond to commands.

These staff work in international outposts including the USA, India, Romania and Costa Rica and may listen to as many as 1,000 clips a day.

Apple Watch glitch let people listen to your conversation

The Google statement comes as Apple announces it has disabled the Walkie-Talkie app on its Apple Watch, after it was discovered to be allowing users to eavesdrop on others’ iPhone conversations.

One in three Aussies think their smart home is recording their conversation

Nearly one in three Australians with a smart home device believe their conversations may not be entirely private, research released by McAfee in March this year revealed.

However, this same research found that Australians weren’t doing anything to address their perceived security risks. McAfee said that a bigger issue than Google and Amazon listening in was the ability of hackers to access smart home users’ private data via insecure wifi networks.

“From connected fridges to WiFi enabled doorbells, Internet of Things (IoT) devices are making their way into homes at an increasing rate, with Gartner predicting as many as 20 billion such devices will exist by 2020. Unfortunately, security is not always prioritised by IoT manufacturers, and it’s up to consumers to ensure their connected home is protected,” chief technology officer for the Australia-Pacific, Ian Yip said.

“By taking a casual approach to securing our home wifi networks, Aussies are effectively giving cybercriminals a key to the castle by allowing them easier access to a large number of data-rich devices through one point of entry, their router.”

Yip suggested Australians change their wifi’s password from the default password to a new, and strong, password. Using dual-factor authentication is also a good idea, as well as making sure your device’s software is up-to-date.

And, generally speaking, smart home devices are dormant until they hear the key phrase like “Okay Google,” or “Hey Siri”.

That means that while the devices are always listening to your conversations, those recordings are deleted once the device fails to hear the key phrase.

But smart homes could also catch killers

Amazon’s Echo and assistants like Google Home and Apple’s Siri may be used as tools in police investigations, with German security departments currently debating whether information recorded by smart devices should be made available for terrorism and serious crime investigations.

“Our view is that digital traces have become increasingly important. We are talking about traces that come from connected devices such as smart fridges but also voice-controlled devices such as smart speakers,” a spokesman for the interior ministry told the Financial Times in June.

Prosecutors in Arkansas also wanted to call on Amazon Alexa to give evidence on a murder in 2017. However, Amazon argued that the authorities hadn’t yet established whether the breach of customer’s privacy rights was more important than the case.

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