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Google Pays Contract Workers “A Few Cents” to Transcribe Your Conversations

July 11, 2019

9:09 am

Google has been using contract workers to secretly transcribe user conversations with their Google Home devices.

One of Google’s contractors revealed that they had been transcribing Google Home conversations, including some that were up to a minute long, and where the users didn’t seem to realise they were being recorded. What’s more, the contractor said that they had been paid just “a few cents” for every transcription.

According to the contractor, voice recordings that captured moments of physical violence and searches for pornography were included in their transcription tasks.

So, can you trust your Google Home devices, and is Google now just as bad as Amazon in terms of voice assistant records?

What Has Google Been Recording?

According to Google, it occasionally sends recordings made by Google Home smart devices to “language experts”. This is said to be for transcription purposes, to help improve device performance. Around one in every 5,000 conversations is sent to one of these experts, although it’s not clear whether there’s a criteria for how conversations are selected.

The contractor, drafted in to be one of Google’s language experts revealed to Dutch site VRT NWS, that they had been paid a pittance for each transcription. Further, they added that some of the recordings were less-than-savoury.

The contractor said that they had transcribed up to minute-long recordings. These included recordings of “physical violence” between people in their home; a mother scolding a child; and men searching for pornography. The contractor also stated that they believed the users could not have known that they were being recorded.

Why is Google Transcribing Conversations?

In a statement to the Telegraph, Google said:

“We partner with language experts around the world to improve speech technology by transcribing a small set of queries – this work is critical to developing technology that powers products like the Google Assistant. Language experts only review around 0.2% of all audio snippets, and these snippets are not associated with user accounts as part of the review process.”

It also said that the process of listening and transcribing user conversations is “critical to developing technology that powers products like the Google Assistant.” Google added that its privacy policy asks users to consent to “collect your voice and audio activity for speech recognition.”

However, the company’s privacy policy doesn’t mention that real people — whether contractors or Google employees — would be listening and transcribing the audio recorded by Google Home devices the old-fashioned way. Google says that it uses these temporary contract workers, rather than full employees, to review and transcribe speech, as it allows the company to improve services for people who speak in different accents and languages.

As for the risks of sensitive conversations being leaked or shared by a contractor? They’re very real. Google said in a statement that “one of these reviewers has violated our data security policies by leaking confidential Dutch audio data. Our Security and Privacy Response teams have been activated on this issue, are investigating, and we will take action. We are conducting a full review of our safeguards in this space to prevent misconduct like this from happening again.”

That’s easy for Google to say, but employing people handling sensitive information on low rate temporary contracts is often a recipe for disaster.

Google Joins Amazon Alexa in Controversy

Smart voice assistants have already been raising privacy concerns, even before this latest news. Recently, Amazon revealed that it “indefinitely” kept records of transactional requests with Alexa-enabled devices. It certainly seems as though the Google and Amazon are up to the similar tricks by keeping such tabs on potentially unaware users.

However, while both companies maintain that their privacy policies cover their actions, the language within them is often vague. In Google’s policy, for example, the benefits of data collection for the user are often mentioned more than the specifics of the data collection.

But, really, it shouldn’t surprise us that Google is listening in on user conversations. Privacy is a quickly disappearing right in the big-tech world in which we live, and the search giant has made its considerable fortune by analysing user queries at colossal scale. And, it seems that fortune is easier to hold onto but cutting a few costs on how much it pays contractors along the way.

Update 7/12/19: Clarified exactly what type of records (i.e. not voice transcripts) Amazon retains after interactions with Alexa.

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Tom Fogden is a writer for Tech.co with a range of experience in the world of tech publishing. Tom covers everything from cybersecurity, to social media and website builders when he's not reviewing the latest phones, gadgets, or occasionally even technology books.