Google rushed out a fix to a glitch in its latest smart speaker last week that caused the device to surreptitiously record the conversations of its early testers without their knowledge or consent.
The bug affected a small number of the Google Home Mini devices that the company handed out to reporters at its press event last week, according to the Google. The company rolled out a software update over the weekend to address the issue on those devices and is exploring a long-term fix.
“We learned of an issue impacting a small number of Google Home Mini devices that could cause the touch mechanism to behave incorrectly,” the company said in a statement, adding, “If you’re still having issues, please feel free to contact Google support.”
Google unveiled the $US50 Mini, which goes on sale on October 19, at its event on Wednesday. Soon after, Android Police’s Artem Russakovskii, who was one of the reporters who received a test unit, discovered that his device was turning on by itself, recording his conversations, and uploading them to Google.
Normally, there are two ways to interact with Google’s smart speakers, including the Mini. You can say the words “OK Google,” followed by a command such as “play ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.'” Alternatively, you can press the button located on the top of the devices instead of saying “OK Google.”
But Russakovskii discovered that his Mini was listening in on him even when he hadn’t pressed the device’s button or said, “OK Google.” When he checked his personal activity page on Google, the site that shows users’ interactions with the search giant’s services and the data it collects on users, he found sound files that had been uploaded to Google’s servers from the Mini without his consent.
Google blamed the glitch on a faulty button in some of the units. The buttons on those Minis were detecting touches even when there was no touch to detect. Russakovskii apparently got one of the defective devices.
On October 7th, three days after it handed out the Mini review units, Google rolled out a software update that disables the button. The change affects every Mini it’s handed out, even those that weren’t malfunctioning. Meanwhile, the company says it’s deleted all the data recorded from alleged button pushes on the Mini review units — whether they were actual button pushes or not — from the time it handed out the devices to reviewers until it issued the update.
Ultimately, the problem appears to be a simple error, not a malicious act of spying. And the company is looking for a long-term solution.
But the glitch is one that Google would certainly have liked to have avoided for multiple reasons, as The Verge notes.
The bug could not only help undermine sales of the Mini but hamper Google’s broader effort to turn itself into a top-tier hardware maker. Smart speakers like the Mini rely on customers’ trust; it’s an act of faith for consumers to let Amazon or Google place a microphone in their houses. They generally expect the companies to only record them when they’re aware of it.
Worse, the nature of the glitch is likely to play into consumers’ worst fears about the search giant. Lots of people are already sensitive to the fact that Google is collecting tons of data on its customers. And the company has previously been taken to task for collecting data without consumers’ consent. Back in 2010, Google admitted its Google Maps Street View cars had been sucking up emails and passwords from unencrypted WiFi networks as the cars mapped neighbourhoods around the country and world.
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