It's just as scary as it sounds
You know that really clever piece of technology where you give your phone instructions using only your voice (hi Siri et al), well, it’s pretty cool, and makes you feel like you’re living in the future, right? Only, for that to work, your device has to ‘listen’ to you. It’s called ‘hotword’ technology, and if you’ve installed it then you’ve basically invited Google to listen to everything that you say.
Kind of scary, right?
Rich Falkvinge, the Pirate party founder, wrote a blog post discussing the issue, explaining what’s going on. He says, ‘without consent, Google’s code had downloaded a black box of code that – according to itself – had turned on the microphone and was actively listening to your room. Which means that your computer had been stealth configured to send what was being said in your room to somebody else, to a private company in another country, without your consent or knowledge, an audio transmission triggered by… an unknown and unverifiable set of conditions.’
So, if you don’t love the idea that your phone is spying on you, what can you do to stop it?
Google have responded to complaints via its developer boards, saying ‘While we do download the hotword module on startup, we do not activate it unless you opt in to hotwording.’ So basically, if you don’t like it you should turn hotwords off.
You’d think that if you can just turn the hotwords off, then it’s no big deal. Not so much. As reports from developers indicate otherwise.
Tech blogger Ofer Zelig explains how he discovered he, without realising it, he’d opened himself up to being recorded. He explains: ‘While I was working I thought ‘I’m noticing that an LED goes on and off, on the corner of my eyesight [webcam]’. And after a few times when it just seemed weird, I sat to watch for it and saw it happening. Every few seconds or so… …They silently put this new module in Chrome (or Chromium to be precise, doesn’t matter much from an end-user perspective).’
Google still asserts that there’s nothing going on, with a spokesperson commenting, ‘We’re sure you’ll be relieved to learn we’re not listening to your conversations – nor do we want to. We’re simply giving Chrome users the ability to search hands free at their computers by saying “OK Google” while on the Google homepage – and only if they choose to opt in to the feature.’