Google officials have admitted that the company's workers can listen to Google Assistant users, and that one of them recently leaked confidential data. A Dutch language expert working for Google to train its speech technology leaked private information in a breach of the company's security policies, company officials said. The disclosure came after Belgian broadcaster VRT NWS reported that its reporters listened to more than 1,000 conversations recorded by the search giant's virtual assistant, including some that revealed identifiable information about the users. "As part of our work to develop speech technology for more languages, we partner with language experts around the world who understand the nuances and accents of a specific language," Google executive David Monsees wrote in a blog post posted on Thursday. These language experts review and transcribe a small set of queries to help us better understand those languages." "We just learned that one of these language reviewers has violated our data security policies by leaking confidential Dutch audio data.
Amazon, Apple and Google all employ staff who listen to customer voice recordings from their smart speakers and voice assistant apps. News site Bloomberg highlighted the topic after speaking to Amazon staff who "reviewed" Alexa recordings. All three companies say voice recordings are occasionally reviewed to improve speech recognition. But the reaction to the Bloomberg article suggests many customers are unaware that humans may be listening. The news site said it had spoken to seven people who reviewed audio from Amazon Echo smart speakers and the Alexa service.
Facebook has become the latest company to admit that human contractors listened to recordings of users without their knowledge, a practice the company now says has been "paused". Citing contractors who worked on the project, Bloomberg News reported on Tuesday that the company hired people to listen to audio conversations carried out on Facebook Messenger. The practice involved users who had opted in Messenger to have their voice chats transcribed, the company said. The contractors were tasked with re-transcribing the conversations in order to gauge the accuracy of the automatic transcription tool. "Much like Apple and Google, we paused human review of audio more than a week ago," a Facebook spokesperson told the Guardian.
Amazon will be the last of three major tech companies to alter its policy on listening to customers' voice recordings amid mounting public pressure. On Friday, Amazon began allowing users of its Echo smart speaker -- equipped with the voice-assistant Alexa -- to opt out of program that gathered some users' voice recordings for human review. After being collected, recordings were sent to third-party contractors who then listened to the clips and documented its content and whether or not the device was able to complete the command. Amazon will let users choose whether or not their voice recordings can be used in a program that listens to audio snippets for Echo smart-speaker improvements. As previously reported, the program accidentally scraped up private information from users by accident, including arguments, official business talk, and audio of people having sex.
Facebook Inc. has been paying hundreds of outside contractors to transcribe clips of audio from users of its services, according to people with knowledge of the work. Facebook has reportedly been paying contractors to transcribe the audio chats of users on its various platforms. According to Bloomberg, which cites people with knowledge of the work, contractors were given audio clips with no context of where they were obtained and told to transcribe them. Facebook told Bloomberg the users affected by this agreed to have voice chats transcribed through its Messenger app. "Much like Apple and Google, we paused human review of audio more than a week ago," said Facebook in a statement to USA TODAY.