So Google Records All The Microphone Audio All The Time, After All?

Posted on Oct 30, 2015 by Rick Falkvinge

It seems Google does record audio from microphones all the time, despite attempts to play down the situation. The “hotword” searching – when you initiate a search by saying “Ok Google” – has been criticized before, when it was downloaded to open-source browsers running Chromium. However, major privacy concerns remain as Google doesn’t start recording when you say “Ok Google”; it was recording before you said the hotword.

Back when Google drive-by-downloaded a black box of recording code onto the Chromium open-source browser, there was a general outrage about Google code listening in to your room. The objections mainly fell into one of two categories:

  • Google is downloading a black box of code to open-source and free-software systems without permission, compromising them.
  • Google is using proprietary code to listen in to your room.

Of these, the first was considered the most grave by far, as any proprietary running code will have access to the device’s sensors – including microphone – almost by definition, and therefore it wasn’t really considered strange that proprietary code had access to black-box recording. However, it was still a privacy issue and a concern that Google had the capability to listen in to any and every room where there was a Chrome or an Android running, which – frankly – is a rather large portion of the available rooms on the planet.

Nevertheless, Google kind of roundabout apologized for having drive-by-downloaded black-box proprietary code to the open-source Chromium browser, and people attempting to shoot down the story (there are always those, and usually with the top-voted comment…) insisted that Google didn’t open the audio recording until after you had said the magic words “Ok Google”, something that is termed a hotword to begin recording, analyzing, and transcribing.

As part of Google’s transparency initiative, you can see (some of?) the data Google has stored about you. It turns out that all audio searches are saved, permanently, and you can listen to your own previous voice commands and voice searches. They’re listed in chronological order.

A screenshot from my Google Audio History. I can listen to the recordings as well as read the transcriptions. If you've been using voice search, you have a page like this, too.
A screenshot from my Google Audio History. I can listen to the recordings as well as read the transcriptions. If you’ve been using voice search, you have a page like this, too.

You’ll recall from the previous privacy discussion, that Google having access to microphones in pretty much every room gives Google the ability to eavesdrop on those each and every rooms continuously. It should be pointed out that this is a technical ability; there’s no indication this is happening, but the presence of the capability is cause for serious privacy concerns.

In that discussion, people said – no, insisted and shouted – that the fear was overblown, tinfoilhattery, and mental. “Obviously, Google only records audio after you say Ok, Google“, pundits said from all directions. But when listening to this recorded audio search off of Google’s audio search history page, something peculiar sticks out, that nobody seems to have noticed. Listen to this:

Did you hear it? The recording starts with me saying “Ok, Google”. That means that the above assertion – that recording starts after those words are said – is incorrect. Recording happened before those words were said. And if recording happened before those words were said, which must be the case since they’re part of the very recording, then audio recording from the microphone(s) is always active to some unknown degree. We see what Google claims is sent to Google – but of course, we have no way whatsoever of verifying this other than blind trust, and that’s in a corporation whose motto has shifted over the years from “Don’t be evil”, to “Privacy is overrated”, to “Whee, we make military robots”.

But here’s the thing. Even if Google isn’t intentionally recording at unknown cues in addition to the hotword searches – and I can’t emphasize enough that there’s no way to know this but blind trust is required – Google will still start recording audio at random times and send it to Google’s servers, when it picks up something it thinks sounds like “Ok, Google” from a conversation. This happened to me a week ago in Seoul, when I was discussing privacy concerns with EFF activists Parker Higgins and Maira Sutton (at least I believe it was that part of the conversation, but that’s beside the point here). All of a sudden, I noticed that my phone was transcribing what I was saying on its screen: Google’s audio detection had kicked in mid-conversation and it was recording the room. I was able to download that part of my conversation with the EFF activists off of Google’s Voice History page later:

So in summary;

We know now that Google’s audio recording does not start after you say “Ok Google”, but was active before you said it, suggesting that it’s always active to some degree.

Regardless of intentions, Google can start recording audio from a room mid-conversation anyway, as illustrated above.

This has all sorts of nasty privacy implications, and they’re not easy to work out. The way to do this properly for privacy is to make sure that all audio interpretation must happen locally, but even then, you can’t know if something is sent to a remote server if you’re searching for the wrong things as long as proprietary code is running (for instance, if you’re searching for something like methods for acquiring substances used to manufacture thermonuclear weapons, a search I dare say is never used to actually manufacture one in your basement, but which might still raise a flag somewhere).

Privacy remains your own responsibility.

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  1. Marti

    So what about when you are having a conversation w/friends and the very thing you were discussing shows up as an ad on FB not 10-15 minutes later? They are using our conversations to target us with marketing. Doesn’t this violate our privacy rights at all? I’m pretty sure I didn’t give FB permission for that.

    7 years ago