Public concern about how big tech companies approach the privacy of their users heightened last week after it emerged that Google employs contractors to listen in to recordings made by the company’s AI voice assistant.

According to Belgian broadcaster VRT NWS, Google employees systematically listen to audio files recorded by Google Home smart speakers and the Google Assistant smartphone app.

The Flemish news outlet based its claim on analysis of more than 1,000 recordings of customer conversations that were obtained from a contractor who was paid to transcribe them.

Google Assistant is supposed to activate only when a user issues a command, such as “Okay Google”, yet 153 of the recorded excerpts were not directed at the device and, therefore, appeared to be picked up unprompted.

“This means that a lot of conversations are recorded unintentionally: bedroom conversations, conversations between parents and their children, but also blazing rows and professional phone calls containing lots of private information,” explained VRT NWS.

“Mistaken recordings can also occur when someone presses the wrong button on his or her phone or unintentionally gives a command,” the report added.

The VRT NWS reporters went on to reveal that they had spoken to someone who works for a Google subcontractor and it emerged that Google employs thousands of people worldwide to listen to these audio clips, including a dozen handling Dutch-language recordings in Flanders and Holland.

Google responded quickly to the report by posting a company blog, in which it confirmed for the first time that it employs people to review a small percentage (0.2%) of all audio snippets.

It said these reviewers are language experts who are employed to produce a small set of transcripts so that Google can better understand nuances and accents in a wide variety of languages.

Google insisted that it applies a “wide range of safeguards” to protect user privacy throughout the “entire review process” and that its reviewers are instructed not to transcribe background conversations – only those that are directed to Google.

One of its reviewers had violated data security policies by leaking confidential data, the Google blog added, and a full review of safeguards has been launched.

Sourced from VRT NWS, Google; additional content by WARC staff