A Google Home Mini "accidentally" listened to a tech reporter 24/7. That it was a mistake only makes it worse.
The paranoid nightmare of a voice assistant spying on you is no longer a theoretical. As Android Police reports and Google confirms, at least one early review unit of the new Google Home Mini was eavesdropping on its owner 24/7 and sending all its recordings home to Google.
Artem Russakovskii, who was using the messed-up Mini, wrote a day-by-day breakdown of his experience that included several days of constant, surreptitious recording. After noticing the Mini behaving weirdly, Russakovskii checked the gadget's logs (a process the average person might not know about or think to do) and found evidence of the eavesdropping. The issue, as Google later confirmed, was that an overly sensitive touch mechanism was allowing the unit to autonomously activate itself over and over.
This issue was clearly non-nefarious and accidental. The Mini was not piping a full stream of audio back to Google on the sly, but rather hundreds of chunks that it perceived as confusing commands. Google's explanation for the issue, which it insists has been patched and only affected a few units to begin with, is straightforward and makes sense. But if you care at all about your privacy, then none of this should make you feel any better about always-listening smart assistants.
Mistake or not, this incident shows it is possible for a smart assistant to listen to you without your knowledge. The fact that it can happen by accident is particularly troubling. Any number of safeguards that might have prevented such a thing-a warning or automatic shutdown on excessive microphone use, for instance-was not in place.
Google itself seems to have been unaware of its own gadget's absurd amount of data gathering until its owner picked up on the weirdness. While that means the search giant likely isn't paying particular attention to you, it also means Google is unlikely to notice if hackers or nefarious apps put its gadgets to malicious use.
There are ways we might mitigate these privacy concerns, though each brings its own downside. Google's new 'Clips' camera illustrates one solution, by ensuring data never leaves the device without an explicit go-ahead. Admittedly, that solution doesn't map cleanly onto a Google Home device whose whole purpose is to relay queries to the internet, but Google's Home devices do process the "OK Google" wake word locally. Google's Home devices also include ways to explicitly disable its microphone via a button, though using these certainly undermine the gadget's whole point. There's also the option of just not putting one of these in your home, but don't forget we're already surrounded by microphones. We're already in the deep end here.
These security concerns don't end with audio, either. Machine learning is on the cusp of turning always-on video into a useful but dangerous bit of technology as well. It may seem outlandish or paranoid to suggest these technologies will immediately or purposefully invade our privacy, or to suggest that those invasions will be put to nefarious use. Perhaps it is. But the fact that these invasions can happen at all is horrifying in its own right.
Update 1: Google has reached out with the following statement:
We learned of an issue impacting a small number of Google Home Mini devices that could cause the touch mechanism to behave incorrectly. We rolled out an update on October 7 to mitigate the issue. If you're still having issues, please feel free to contact Google Support at 1-855-971-9121 to get a replacement Google Home Mini.
Update 2: Google has now decided to permanently disable the touch-to-activate feature that made this bug possible.
We take user privacy and product quality concerns very seriously. Although we only received a few reports of this issue, we want people to have complete peace of mind while using Google Home Mini. We have made the decision to permanently remove all top touch functionality on the Google Home Mini. As before, the best way to control and activate Google Home Mini is through voice, by saying "Ok Google" or "Hey Google," which is already how most people engage with our Google Home products. You can still adjust the volume by using the touch control on the side of the device.
Source: Popular Mechanics