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Google Contractors Listen to Recordings of Consumers Addressing Virtual Assistant

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07/11/2019 | 01:40pm EDT

By Sarah E. Needleman and Parmy Olson

Google said contractors are listening to customer audio recorded by the company's virtual assistant, a disclosure prompted by a media report that adds to privacy concerns associated with the technology.

Belgian public broadcaster VRT NWS said in a report this week that the Alphabet Inc. unit employs contractors around the globe to listen to some recordings of conversations that people have with the Google Assistant, which is available on its Google Home speakers and Android devices.

In a blog post Thursday, Google confirmed it employs people world-wide to listen to a small sample of recordings.

The public broadcaster's report said the recordings potentially expose sensitive information about users such as names and addresses. It also said Google, in some cases, is recording voices of customers even when they aren't using Google Assistant.

In its blog post, Google said language experts listen to 0.2% of "audio snippets" taken from the Google Assistant to better understand different languages, accents and dialects. "This is a critical part of the process of building speech technology, and is necessary to creating products like the Google Assistant," it said.

A sample of audio clips were shared with journalists from VRT News. Google blamed a rogue contractor for leaking Dutch customers' audio in violation of its data-security policies and said it is investigating the matter.

A Google spokesman pointed to the company's privacy policy, which states, "We provide personal information to our affiliates and other trusted businesses or persons to process [your information] for us."

The Google Assistant is one of many such devices aiming to help organize users' computing lives. Amazon.com Inc., Apple Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Samsung Electronics Co. also offer virtual assistants.

A coalition of privacy and child-advocacy groups filed a complaint in May with federal regulators about Amazon potentially preserving conversations of young users through its Echo Dot Kids devices. A company representative said at the time Amazon was compliant with federal privacy laws and that privacy policies are disclosed on the company's website. Guardians of minors filed lawsuits last month in California state court and federal court in Seattle alleging Amazon doesn't obtain consent from children or their parents when they use its voice assistant.

Last year, Amazon acknowledged that one of its Echo home speakers mistakenly recorded a private conversation and sent it to a person in the owners' contact list.

Tim Verheyden, a Dutch reporter with VRT NWS, told The Wall Street Journal that he had access to more than 1,000 fragments of audio that a Google contractor had been transcribing. Some of the recordings included speech that wasn't directed at a Google service, he said.

"I heard a couple saying, 'Where is Franz? It's already 11 and he should be here at 10,'" Mr. Verheyden said. He also recalled hearing one woman telling another woman: "It's normal that he's a little bit later because boys don't grow as fast as girls."

Mr. Verheyden said it was unclear whether the audio fragments were collected through a Google Home speaker or another device, but it appeared that Google's voice-activation system had been set off by accident. Typically, a user must utter the command phrase, "Ok, Google," to enable the virtual assistant or tap a button if on an Android device.

Mr. Verheyden said a contractor for Google had been able to access the audio snippets from home through a web browser, using a login and password.

A Google spokesman said all audio snippets listened to by transcribers were "decoupled" from their Google accounts so that they couldn't be identified. VRT NWS reported that Google would delete user names and replace them with a serial number.

The incidents speak to the concerns of some consumers and tech analysts that the combination of internet-connected microphones and artificial-intelligence-powered automation could spawn more mishaps or even abuses as demand for smart speakers grows.

Last year, more than 53 million smart speakers were sold or distributed free world-wide, according to estimates from Futuresource Consulting. The market-research firm expects the number to rise to 81 million units this year.

Still, the market for voice-controlled systems, which are spreading to other devices such as TVs, cars and home appliances, isn't growing as quickly as the industry expected in part due to consumers' concerns about privacy, said Simon Bryant, research director at Futuresource. The issue "is becoming more prominent," especially as it gains more media attention, he said.

Write to Sarah E. Needleman at sarah.needleman@wsj.com

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