Sunday 21 July 2019

Potential Google data breach faces review by Data Protection Commissioner

Stock photo: Reuters
Stock photo: Reuters

Aine Kenny

The Data Protection Commissioner is considering a report from Google, after the tech giant alerted it to a potential data breach.

It came after it emerged that Google’s home assistant "may have been inadvertently recording conversations amongst its users."

The Irish Independent understands that the potential breach relates to the recording of conversations and audio being given to Google employees to analyse.

However the exact details of what was in the report are unclear.

Graham Doyle, Head of Communications at the Irish Data Protection Commission, confirmed that they received a breach notification from Google on Thursday night.

“We are currently assessing the information,” Mr Doyle said.

Google confirmed yesterday in a blog post that extracts from recorded conversations are supplied to language analysts in order to improve the tech giant’s voice-recognition system.

“As part of our work to develop speech technology for more languages, we partner with language experts around the world who understand the nuances and accents of a specific language. These language experts review and transcribe a small set of queries to help us better understand those languages,” said David Monsees, Product Manager for Search.

“Language experts only review around 0.2 pc of all audio snippets.

“Audio snippets are not associated with user accounts as part of the review process, and reviewers are directed not to transcribe background conversations or other noises, and only to transcribe snippets that are directed to Google.”

David Lewis, Assistant Professor in Knowledge and Data Engineering at Trinity College said that there are two issues. “When companies say they collect recordings to improve their service, this entails employees listening to these recordings and transcribing the conversations.

“This is on a sampling basis, so 0.2 pc of all converstaions. But people are only now realising what’s actually involved.”

Mr Lewis says that people are concerned because the details of this process are not stated explicity. “It’s a case of people need to understand this better and the companies need to explain it better.”

The Trinity professor says that because a lot of people don’t read the terms and conditions, it is news to them that they are even being recorded.

In terms of potential data breaches, the expert says there is a potential risk if Google Assistant accidentally records a conversation not intended for it. “I suppose if sensitive or personal details are recorded, like arguments in the living room, or conversations in the bedroom, people will be concerned,” Mr Lewis told the Herald.

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