A proposed class action alleges Google has configured the Google Home smart speaker to be “always listening,” even when a user does nothing to activate the device.
According to the 40-page privacy lawsuit out of California, Google and parent company Alphabet have deceived and misled consumers by falsely promising their stable of voice-activated products, including the Home, Hub and Nest, will only listen in upon hearing an activation phrase, such as “Hey Google” or “Ok Google.”
“Google, in fact, configured the Google Home to record, retrieve, and process audio throughout users’ homes—even when users did not do anything to activate it,” the complaint says.
To alleviate privacy concerns, Google has consistently represented to consumers that it will not record or process conversations or other audio picked up by its array of in-home smart devices unless a specific activation phrase is uttered by a user, the suit relays. This assurance has left consumers with the impression that their conversations and other audio would not be recorded and/or sent to Google without their authorization, the case says, stressing that the defendants “tr[y] to make consumers think that they control” when the product is activated.
In reality, however, Google has never informed Google Home users that the device can be activated, and start recording and/or transmitting everything it hears, without the utterance of an activation phrase, the lawsuit alleges. As the suit tells it, the Google Home device will start listening, and therefore transmit data back to Google, “even when there are no sounds in the house that sounded anything remotely like the activation phrase.”
Per the lawsuit, Google Home users began reporting in late July 2020 instances of the devices sending alerts about information that “could have been obtained only by their Google Home devices surreptitiously recording audio without their consent.” The case shares an example in which a Reddit user stated in a forum that after he burned something in his kitchen, he received a notification to his smartphone that Google had detected his smoke alarms going off even though they were not smart devices.
In another scenario detailed in the complaint, a different Reddit user reported their Google Home had picked up on the sound of glass breaking and sent a notification to the individual’s smartphone.
After these and similar situations were reported by various media outlets, Google admitted to Protocol that Google Home devices were listening to and transmitting user data even with the absence of any activation command, the lawsuit says. Per the suit, Google characterized the intrusions as an accident linked to a software update that was subsequently “rolled back.”
The issue, the complaint contends, is that Google never informed users that its devices were eavesdropping without authorization. From the suit:
“Google, however, never informed users that its devices were surreptitiously recording the sounds in their homes and sending the recordings back to Google. Nor did Google identify when it started recording these sounds, what sounds were being recorded, or what exactly Google was doing with the audio. According to Protocol, Google also declined to state whether it has plans to engage in the same conduct in the future.”
The experiences of Reddit users shared in the complaint are not the first time Google has been caught having configured the Google Home to record consumers without consent, the suit goes on. The case relays that an October 2017 CNN Business report revealed that an early version of the Google Home mini “uploaded everything that the user said,” with a journalist sharing that thousands of recordings were made by the device in his home without ever hearing the activation command.
The plaintiffs assert they never would have bought the Google Home had they known Google configured the device to record and transmit data back to the company.
The lawsuit looks to represent consumers nationwide who installed a Google Home device within the last four years.
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