As the Internet of Things (IoT) becomes more pervasive as a fixture in contemporary culture, smart homes that allow voice control of home operations and communications act as a double-edged sword. While there’s no denying the convenience of employing connected devices in multiple aspects of home and work, issues around privacy and surveillance accompany the technological advances.
IoT Analytics reported 17 billion connected devices globally in 2018, including 7 billion devices. And while the wave of connected devices will likely continue to rise, experts say understanding and mitigating privacy risks becomes increasingly important. Digital assistants like Google Home, which runs connected devices, come with inherent privacy risks incumbent on users to manage.
In a report published in Digital Privacy News earlier this year, chairman and co-founder of data and identity protection firm CyberScout, Adam Levine, said “all of these devices are gathering, in some cases, pretty intimate data about us — even something as simple as when you come home, when you leave, when you go to bed, when you wake up.”
One particular issue for privacy advocates centers on the use of interactive speech features where users unintentionally allowed recordings of commands and information requests that could then be reviewed by the Google team working on the Google Assistant Voice & Audio Activity feature.
However, the new policy was criticized for not differing from previous terms, prompting Google officials to pause the Google Assistant recordings.
“We recently updated our settings and included more detail about how Google uses voice and audio recordings to improve products like Google Assistant for everyone,” a Google spokesperson said in an email. “We believe you should be able to manage your data in a way that works best for you. People will have the option to review and confirm their choice and we won’t resume saving recordings until they have confirmed their preference.”
A significant portion of the new policy relies on operational adjustments around Google Assistant, one of the underlying technologies in Google Home and other Google products. For example, the “Hey Google” or “OK Google” commands now include sensitivity control as a means of preventing inadvertent VAA activation from television or background conversation. In these instances, users can decrease the sensitivity setting. On the other hand, the VAA system might fail to activate in particularly noisy environments, prompting users to increase sensitivity settings.
Available through the Device settings in the selected speaker or Smart Display in the Google Home app, primary account owners of devices set sensitivity levels and adjust settings that apply to anyone using the device.
Google Assistant now also enables commands like “delete everything I’ve said to you this week” and provides guidance when asked “Where can I change my privacy settings?” or “Are you saving my audio recordings?”
Human review of Google Assistant recordings provides a means for engineers to determine how successfully the VAA tool works for Google Home users and also to improve the VAA system around correctly processing accents and speech nuances. Using recorded snippets that are disassociated from accounts, reviewers score system accuracy in processing user commands and information requests. Around .2 percent of audio snippets generated in Google Assistant undergo human review, according to the “Doing more to protect your privacy with Assistant” blog post published in September last year.
The blog entry includes an apology for falling short of "making it easy for you to understand how your data is used."
In response to an email query on the new privacy settings, a Google Communications and Public Affairs spokesperson emphasized that the company doesn’t currently and never has retained user audio recordings in Google Assistant applications. Users can also view past interactions with Google Assistant and delete interactions at any time. What’s more, Google automatically deletes recordings after 18 months.
Users who do opt in to the VAA system during Google Assistant set up enjoy the benefit of better voice recognition over time, according to the blog entry.
With the rollout of the new privacy settings, existing Google Assistant who’ve previously opted in to human review will be prompted to again review the VAA option and to confirm preferences around the human review process. Inclusion of user audio in the human review process requires reconfirmation of turning on the VAA setting.
According to “How Google Protects Your Privacy if You Choose to Save Audio Data”, a video published on YouTube in early August, human review allows for improvements for the “hundreds of millions of people
in the world who rely on Google speech technology” and allows VAA tools to improve the ability to understand language in the future.
An animated overview of the human review option, the video features a woman in a wheelchair, which perhaps signifies concerted efforts to apply expanded VAA capabilities for those with disabilities where “using their voice to get things done” falls more in the necessity category than in the convenience category.
The growth in the adoption rate of connected devices through Google Home and similar products requires users to maintain an awareness around how the Internet of Things contributes to the compromise in privacy.
New and existing Google Home users must opt-in to Google’s VAA system to authorize human review of recording within Google Assistant.
Even if Google Home users opt in to allow human review of commands and information, users have the option to review and to delete any and all recordings