In 2017, tech journalist Artem Russakovskii received a Google Home Mini to review before its launch. He soon discovered it was recording him 24/7, without the “OK Google” hotword – and those recording were getting uploaded directly to Google’s cloud servers.
It’s no secret: the ease of using a smart home device comes at the cost of privacy – or at least how much of our personal data we are willing to barter for the undeniable convenience these devices bring to our busy lives.
Fears around our phones eavesdropping on us to offer hyper-targeted ads, and reports of Amazon’s employees listening in on conversations recorded by the Echo smart speakers only add to suspicions and tensions. Bloomberg revealed Amazon employs a global team analysts to review audio files collected from Echo devices to help train the software’s understanding of natural language.
In Russakovskii’s case, Google Home Mini’s constant surveillance turned out to be a defect and Google took immediate action to correct the issue with both a software and hardware update – but it does leave a simmering unease around the device’s privacy and security.
If you’re wondering whether the ever-helpful Google Home or Home Mini is listening in your conversations here’s the answer, and what you can do about it.
Also see our article on how to set up parental controls on Google Home.
Google's latest and largest smart speaker in the range, the Home Max.
Is Google Home Listening to me?
The short answer is yes. Google Home is always listening – which may be a surprise, but that’s how the device works.
On the hardware level, the speaker locally stores a stream of audio so it can appropriately respond to the wake word when it needs to.
These ambient recordings only upload to Google’s cloud servers when the wake word is said. The audio is then processed in the cloud and then returned to the device to deliver a result or response to whatever is asked. According to Google’s Data Security and Privacy on Google Home, the device listens for a few seconds at a time, in what it calls snippets, for the hotword – but these Snippets are deleted if it doesn’t pick up the hotword.
On the larger service level, these recordings are used to improve, as Google states in its Voice and Activity permissions prompt, “This data helps Google give you [the user] more personalised experiences across Google services, such as improved speech and audio recognition, both on and off Google”.
How to delete Google Home recordings
While it’s understandable to be suspicious of big data companies, Google is mostly transparent around how to access and delete your recordings.
To see every recording of your voice-activated commands so far, head to the My Activity section of your Google Account, where you should be able to delete individual queries.
Its Manage Google Voice & Audio Activity section outlines how to delete recordings one at a time or all at once.
How to delete Google voice recordings one at a time
- Go to your Google Account
- Choose Data and personalization from the panel on the left.
- Choose Voice and Audio Activity under Activity Controls
- Click Manage Activity, where you’ll see your voice commands by date
- Click on the three-dot hamburger menu and then Delete
How to delete all Google voice recordings
- Follow steps 1 to 4 above. At step 5, choose “Delete Activity by” instead.
- Under “Delete by date” click on the down arrow to choose the “All Time” option
- At the bottom, choose Delete.
Is Google spying on you? It's hard to tell truly but we don't think so (we can't speak for government agencies who would want to take advantage of these devices within the larger internet of things ecosystem) – but chances are big data companies are more interested in understanding who you are to bring you various products and services, theirs or third-party ones, more quickly. It's convenience at a cost – you'll just have to decide your price or risk getting locked out of the market.