Google investigated for potentially breaching GDPR by listening in on private conversations

German authorities are launching administrative proceedings against Google after it was revealed the tech titan’s employees had listened to private conversations when reviewing Google Assistant, the company’s voice controlled digital assistant.

The controversy began in the beginning of July when Belgian broadcaster VRT NWS revealed that Google employees were listening to recordings of Google Assistant queries. They transcribed the recording to quality check the artificial intelligence-powered assistant. However, this meant that they often listened to people’s private conversations. Some were sensitive in nature.

Moreover, the program was also activated by mistake due to the assistant mishearing what it thought was the wakeup phrase “Hey, Google.” Of the thousands of recordings leaked to VRT NWS, 153 were captured by accident.

Following the news reports, the Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information (HmbBfDI) has initiated an administrative process against Google. It will look into if Google breached the rules of the General Data Protection Regulaiton (GDPR).

During the process, it has prevented the Mountain View company to do similar evaluations, either by using their own employees or third parties. The aim of this is to protect people’s privacy. This will go on for three months starting on August 1.

Johannes Caspar, the Hamburg commissioner for data protection and freedom of information, argued that there were “currently considerable doubts about” Google compliance with GDPR.

“The use of speech assistance systems must be transparent so that informed consent can be obtained from users,” Caspar continued. “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.”

Google has confirmed it will stop transcribing recordings from Google Assistant during this period. The tech giant has also stated it does not associate any audio clips with users’ accounts and that only 0.2 per cent of recordings were reviewed.

HmbBfD also encouraged Amazon and Apple, who both have similar voice-controlled assistants, to look over their own processes to ensure they have implemented the appropriate processes to avoid breaching GDPR.

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