Google Home Mini: My Personal Spy

For Christmas, my grandma bought me a set of cooking pots and pans. Oddly enough, inside included was a Google Home Mini.

When I first experienced the speaker it reminded me of an episode out of Netflix’s Black Mirror. As an avid binge watcher of the show, I know that most of the episodes end negatively for the protagonist but I shrugged off the feeling, especially after using my Google Home Mini for the first few times.

My Google Mini, just as advertised, allowed hands-free help in any room. I used the speaker for many things: news, cooking recipes and weird questions such as who invented the lawnmower? — Edwin Beard Budding by the way.

For this reason, I always kept my Google Home plugged in and ready to follow any request or answer any stupid question that ran across my mind. A few months went by and as I was cleaning out my back room, I came across the Google Home Mini box.

Inside were the terms and conditions. As an aspiring technical writer, I decided to give the packet a read. It was there that I discovered that Google Home may record my request to further assist updates.

This made me wonder if the people back at Google can hear me talking to my device. Isn’t that an invasion of my privacy? Also, is my Google Home device always listening to me?

I did some research and found that the algorithm in the Google Home is not supposed to start recording until after the phrase “Ok Google” and others are said. But I was confused because for Google to hear me say “Ok Google,” doesn’t it have to always be listening? I wondered if other devices like the Alexa or Echo also recorded requests.

It turns out they do; in fact on Thursday, Bloomberg reported, “Amazon Workers Are Listening to What You Tell Alexa. A global team reviews audio clips in an effort to help the voice-activated assistant respond to commands.”

Basically, they’re people who sit and listen to commands and request all day long, looking to improve the technology. 

“You don’t necessarily think of another human listening to what you’re telling your smart speaker in the intimacy of your home,” said Florian Schaub, a professor at the University of Michigan who has researched privacy issues related to smart speakers. “I think we’ve been conditioned to the [assumption] that these machines are just doing magic machine learning. But the fact is there is still manual processing involved.”

So for about a week, any time I spoke to my Google Home, I would get the feeling of some stranger listening to my request and that made me a bit uncomfortable. It felt like there was a personal spy in my house.

My speaker has essentially been laid off. I have unplugged it and moved it to the back room. Occasionally I will use it to play music, but other than that it is unplugged. I can just use my phone to look up enchilada recipes.

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