Google accidentally enables Home smart speakers to listen in to everyday house sounds

Users have received notifications when their Google Home speakers hear smoke alarms or breaking glass

Adam Smith
Thursday 06 August 2020 14:36 BST
Google accidentally enables home smart speakers to listen in to everyday house sounds

Google accidentally enabled a feature for Google Home users which let the smart speaker listen to the sounds of objects in your house.

A user on Reddit spotted a notification on his phone from his smart speaker which alerted him to the fact his smoke alarm was going off while he was cooking.

Usually, Google Home devices only respond to its active ‘wake words’ – such as “Ok, Google” or “Hey, Google” – but in this instance the speaker was listening out to a passive sound and make “my dumb smoke detectors smart,” the Reddit user wrote.

Other users reported getting alerts for the sound of glass breaking, popped bubble wrap, an air compressor tank, and other high-pitched noises that sound like alarms.

In a statement to Protocol, a Google spokesperson said that the feature was accidentally enabled through a recent software update which has now been reversed.

Although the feature provides greater security it is a trade off for less privacy. Google has adamantly pushed that the only way its smart speaker will listen to users is via its wake word.

The use of ambient monitoring for other reasons could lead to questions about what else Google will request to monitor in the future – especially since all that stands in the way of a users’ acquiescence is a privacy policy that few will ever read.

Google is not the only company with this feature; Amazon’s Echo speakers added a feature like this in 2018 called Alexa Guard.

As well as listening out for suspect noises, Alexa will also check to see if it hears people whispering. If they are, it will respond more quietly than normal.

However, Alexa Guard must be enabled by users via voice as they are leaving their house, rather than being on all the time.

This is not the first time Google has activated a microphone feature its customers did not know about. In 2019, the company installed hidden microphones in its Nest Secure alarm system, but the addition had been left off the box and the product’s web page because of an “error”.

Google said the addition was “never intended to be a secret“, but users only realised the company could have been potentially listening to users until Google announced an update that would allow it to use Google Assistant.

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