Google Assistant is at the center of a proposed class action wherein three plaintiffs allege the voice-recognition program records individuals, including minors, without consent and notwithstanding whether any “hot word” was spoken or button was pressed to activate the software.
The 19-page complaint alleges defendants Google LLC and parent company Alphabet have run afoul of California’s Invasion of Privacy Act and consumer protection statutes by recording the conversations of Google Home, Pixel smartphone and Android operating system users without permission to do so.
Google Assistant-enabled devices, the lawsuit says, are supposed to listen for two sets of “hot words”—“Hey, Google” or “Okay, Google”—or respond to a button press before analyzing short snippets of audio from their surroundings in order to carry out users’ commands or answer questions. Once audio has been captured by Google Assistant, it allegedly gets transmitted to Google for analysis. Per the suit, Google Assistant is supposed to only transmit audio recordings of Google users while in active listening mode.
The lawsuit cites a July 10 report from Belgian news outlet VRT NWS that stated “thousands of [Google] employees” aresystematically listeningto the audio captured by Google smart speakers and the Google Assistant app, including snippets that apparently do not contain either of the above-mentioned hot words. From the complaint:
“According to VRT NWS, when an individual interacts with Google Assistant’s speech recognition feature, the software automatically generates a script of the conversation which is then stored along with the audio recording. Google employees and subcontractors are then tasked with analyzing whether Google Assistant has accurately interpreted the individual’s speech. To do so, Google’s subcontractors log into the online tool and are presented with a list of audio files and corresponding transcripts to analyze. The reviewers double check that ‘every cough and every audible comma’ is reflected in the transcript. VRT NWS reports that they ‘have 3 sources confirming that this is the way Google works.’”
The case goes on to state that VRT NWS was given access to upward of a thousand audio recordings, among which were 153 conversations that should never have been recorded, given the “Okay, Google” command was not spoken. These conversations, according to the report, included “bedroom conversations, conversations between parents and their children” and professional phone calls. VRT NWS’ report revealed that rather than listen only for hot words to begin analyzing audio, Google Assistant-enabled devices instead kick on when they hear “anything thatremotelysounds” like a hot word. Even after Google discovers wrongly recorded conversations, according to the case, it nonetheless keeps and analyses the recordings.
Further still, Google Assistant, according to the suit, makes no distinction between the voices of adults and children. As a result, devices with Google Assistant are “recording children and transmitting that information to Google whenever they say a word thatremotelysounds like a hot word,” the case alleges.
The lawsuit looks to certify a class of all individuals who were recorded by a Google Assistant-enabled device without consent from at least as early as May 18, 2016 to the present. Within this class is a proposed subclass of those who are or were minor at the time they were recorded by a Google Assistant-enabled device.