Google has been temporarily forced to stop listening in on its users across Europe after leaked data sparked privacy concerns (GOOG, GOOGL)

Sundar Pichai

  • Google has been forced by German authorities to temporarily halt its practice of manually reviewing audio recordings that help train its Google Assistant product, according to a report on Thursday. 
  • The ban comes as a result of a July report in which a Dutch media outlet used leak audio snippets from a third-party reviewer to show that some Google Assistant users had been recorded by their devices unknowingly. 
  • “The use of automatic speech assistants from providers such as Google, Apple and Amazon is proving to be highly risky for the privacy of those affected,” Thursday’s report read. 
  • A Google spokesperson told Business Insider that after learning about the Dutch audio data leaks, the company had already halted language reviews for the Assistant while it investigated the matter further. 

Google has been forced by German authorities to temporarily halt its practice of manually reviewing audio recordings that help train its Google Assistant product, according to a report on Thursday. 

The European Union-wide ban will take place for three months, and comes as a result of a July report in which a Dutch media outlet used leaked audio snippets from a third-party reviewer to show that some Google Assistant users had been recorded by their devices unknowingly. 

“The use of automatic speech assistants from providers such as Google, Apple and Amazon is proving to be highly risky for the privacy of those affected,” Thursday’s report from the Hamburg Commissioner read. “[The ban] is intended to provisionally protect the rights of privacy of data subjects for the time being.” 

According to July’s report, out of the 1,000 audio snippets obtained by the media outlet, 153 were recorded unbeknownst to the user. A Google spokesperson told Business Insider at the time that these instances of “false accepts” — or, having the Assistant triggered without a clear command from the user, like “Hey Google — were rare and that it puts several protections in place to prevent this from happening. The spokesperson, however, would not comment on the high number of “false accepts” from the Dutch report. 

Read more: Google says its workers are listening to and transcribing your Google Assistant commands

At the time of the report, Google said it was “conducting a full review of our safeguards in this space to prevent misconduct like this from happening again.” 

On Thursday, a Google spokesperson told Business Insider that after learning about the Dutch audio data leaks, the company had already halted language reviews for the Assistant while it investigated the matter further. The spokesperson did not immediately confirm whether these reviews were halted worldwide or in Europe only.

In the past, Google has said it works with “language experts around the world to improve speech technology by transcribing a small set of queries.” That work, it has said, is “critical to developing technology that powers products like the Google Assistant.” 

Although no immediate action was taken against Apple or Amazon — which both have been found to also listen in on their users — the commissioner’s report “invited” the companies “swiftly review” their policies and procedures. 

SEE ALSO: Google’s search ranking boss says its recent algorithm change helps get users the freshest results, but only when freshness matters

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