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Google’s privacy controls for recordings change. What it means for your Google home



Google Booth CES 2020

Google announced that it is taking back human reviewers to listen to snippets of commands given to Google Assistant, which usually begin with either “Hello, Google” or “OK, Google.”

James Martin / CNET

You probably assume that the only one listening when you say “Hello, Google” is Google Assistant – the digital, artificial intelligence help behind your Google Home devices. This has been the case for almost a year now, ever since public outcry over the practice of people listening to your recordings led Google to join several other technology companies in stops its human review program. Men a recent announcement by the company indicates that it is changing. But only if you want it to.

Last week, Google sent an email to almost everyone who’s ever interacted with Google apps, services, or devices using their voice – including Google Home users – to find out that their voice recordings are no longer saved. The e-mail address contains a link if you want to register (or back in), but also lets you know that it allows your voice recordings to be heard by human reviewers.

Here’s what you need to know about what the change means for your privacy, what happens if you choose, and how long Google would save your recordings.

What’s different about Google Home’s new privacy policy?

Nothing differs from Google Assistant’s privacy policy itself (Google’s Terms of Service have not been updated or changed). What differs is Google’s procedures under these policies and possibly your privacy settings as well.

Basically, Google goes back to having people review some of the voice recordings that are saved when people interact with its assistant. It has now stopped saving these recordings at the wholesale level, unless users select the program. (Here’s a direct link to Google’s privacy setting if you want to check it out or change it.)

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Google Home is listening …

Dale Smith / CNET

What voice recordings?

Google records your voice when you call Google Assistant by saying the wake-up words “Hello, Google” or “OK, Google”, whether via a Google Home smart speaker or screen or an Android phone or tablet. Google also takes a recording when you use your voice to dictate to Google Search, Google Maps, Gmail or any other Google service. Google sometimes mistakenly registers when something you or someone else (even someone on TV) says sounds too much like Google’s watchword.

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Google Home listens for 24 hours a day for its words and then translates what is said afterwards into commands.

Taylor Martin / CNET

These recordings are then processed on a remote server and translated into commands, which Google Assistant then executes, usually on the device you gave the command to (but also on other devices such as smart bulbs, thermostats, etc.)

This setting change controls whether these recordings are immediately deleted or saved in the cloud for six months, 18 months, or until you delete them manually.

Why would I want to choose? What do I get out of it?

Google’s email to customers reads in part “Saved audio recordings help improve our audio recognition techniques, so products like Google Assistant can understand the language even better in the future.” But other than the satisfaction of knowing that you’re helping Google improve its products (if you think that kind of thing satisfies, anyway), there really is not much in it for you.

What happens if I remain removed? What is the disadvantage?

In addition to not being able to access a record with all the commands you have issued to Google Home or Google Assistant, it seems that nothing about your actual user experience will change.

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You may not want Google to keep a record of things said privately in your home.

James Martin / CNET

Can I save my recordings but not sign up for human review?

It does not seem so. The choice seems to be all or nothing. You agree to allow Google to save your recordings and possibly let human reviewers listen to, or not.

Will human reviewers know who I am if I opt-in?

Apparently not. According to a video on the privacy settings page, Google does not send complete recordings (“excerpts” only) and anonymizes the information before doing so. So it looks like human reviewers can’t trace your voice recording back to your specific Google account.

How long will Google hold on to my voice recordings?

If you created your account after June 24, Google will retain your personal information (including voice recordings) for 18 months before deleting it. If your account is older than that, the default is to never delete it, but you can change it to six or 18 months.

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Google Home smart speakers sometimes light up and listen even when you’re not saying a password.

Ian Knighton / CNET

If you want to tip a little under the hood, we both have one guide to changing your global Google privacy settings and a separate Google Home Privacy Settings Guide.

The privacy settings for Google Home are not the only switches you might want to tinker with. Think about these five settings you should change immediately, make sure you have these music settings are set correctly and Adjusting this setting is a must if you have more than one Google Home smart speaker.


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