It turns out that some Google Home Minis, the smart speakers that the company released in early October, were almost continuously recording audio from users’ homes. According to Artem Russakovskii, founder of the tech blog Android Police, a glitch in his device’s touch mechanism caused the Mini to randomly wake up, capture sounds, and then transmit them to Google without him knowing.
Normally, the microphones in the speakers are supposed to activate only when a user says a certain phrase, such as “Hey Google.” The device will then record whatever the user has to say and send it to the cloud so that the request can be processed and answered. If users don’t want to bother with extending a greeting to a machine, they can also just press a button on top of the Mini and then voice the command or question. But the button on Russakovskii’s device malfunctioned, causing it to surreptitiously record tons of audio, and he wrote a hilarious yet disturbing account of how he found out.
The blogger had received the Mini as a party favor at Google’s launch event for a variety of new hardware on Oct. 4. He placed it in his bathroom to help him with his morning routine. Then, like a twist in an episode of Black Mirror, Russakovskii discovered on his Google activity history that the Mini had been recording thousands of times per day without any direction or audible announcement. Upon closer examination, he realized that the speaker will sometimes only flash its lights when it’s capturing noise. “My Google Home Mini was inadvertently spying on me 24/7 due to a hardware flaw,” he writes.
Google provided Russakovskii with a comment:
We have learned of an issue impacting a small number of Google Home Minis that could cause the touch mechanism to behave incorrectly. We are rolling out a software update today that should address the issue. If you're having any additional issues, please feel free to contact Google Support at 1-855-971-9121.
The Verge also notes that company has set up a help page for the issue that indicates that it is only the devices given out at certain Google events that may be affected. So, tech reporters, check your Minis.
Users are supposed to be able to curate what information gets sent to Google from the Mini and other Home devices. But as Slate tech reporter April Glaser points out, it’s unlikely that most people are going to go through the trouble of tweaking their privacy options. She further writes that the data that the speakers can collect, from music preferences to eating habits, are “a gold mine of personal information that can ostensibly be used to serve ads on other Google products, perfectly tailored to your needs at any given time.”
Update, Oct. 12, 2017: A Google spokesperson sent us the following statement:
We take user privacy and product quality concerns very seriously. Although we only received a few reports of this issue, we want people to have complete peace of mind while using Google Home Mini.
We have made the decision to permanently remove all top touch functionality on the Google Home Mini. As before, the best way to control and activate Google Home Mini is through voice, by saying “Ok Google” or “Hey Google,” which is already how most people engage with our Google Home products. You can still adjust the volume by using the touch control on the side of the device.