What you need to know

  • A German privacy regulator has ordered Google to stop transcriptions of Assistant audio recordings in Europe.
  • The ban will last for at least three months.
  • A report published by a Belgian broadcaster last month had claimed Google employees listen to conversations recorded by the company's Assistant app as well as smart Home speakers.

The Hamburg Commission for Data Protection and Freedom of Information (HmbBfDI) has banned Google from carrying out transcriptions of audio conversations recorded by the company's AI assistant in Europe for at least three months.

Johannes Caspar, Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information said:

The use of speech assistance systems in the EU must comply with the data protection requirements of the GDPR. In the case of the Google Assistant, there are currently considerable doubts about this. The use of speech assistance systems must be transparent so that informed consent can be obtained from users. In particular, this involves sufficient and transparent information for those concerned about the processing of voice commands, but also about the frequency and risks of misactivation. Finally, due account must be taken of the need to protect third parties affected by voice recordings. As a first step, further questions about the functioning of the speech analysis system need to be answered. The data protection authorities will then have to decide on the final measures that are necessary for their data protection-compliant operation.

A Google spokesperson told The Verge that the company had already paused "language reviews" soon after Assistant recordings were leaked.

We are in touch with the Hamburg data protection authority and are assessing how we conduct audio reviews and help our users understand how data is used.

Last month, Belgian broadcaster VRT NWS revealed in a report that Google used human workers to transcribe audio clips recorded by Google Assistant, some of which were recorded "accidentally". The broadcaster managed to access more than 1,000 audio clips recorded by Google Assistant, with some of them containing highly sensitive and private information.

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Shortly after the report was published, Google confirmed in a blog post that it does partner with language experts to review and transcribe a small number of recordings to help it improve its speech technology for more languages. Google described the process as being "critical" in creating products like Assistant. It added that various safeguards are applied to ensure that the privacy of its users is not compromised in any way during the review process and that only about 0.2 percent of all audio snippets are reviewed by language experts.

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