Security

Google Home Mini spied on user 'thousands of times a day,' sent recordings to Google

Some Google Mini smart speakers were turning themselves on and spying on users multiple times per day. Google has patched the issue, but it raises concerns about privacy.

One of the biggest privacy nightmares for smart speakers just came to life. A prominent Google user, Android Police's Artem Russakovskii, recently discovered his Google Home Mini was waking up "thousands of times a day," recording sound, and sending that data back to Google.

Now, it's important to note that Google has since become aware of the issue and released a patch to fix it. However, the incident should raise concerns for privacy-conscious users, and businesses that may be considering using these kinds of products.

According to Russakovskii's report, he received a Home Mini at the Made by Google event on October 4, 2017 and set it up in his bathroom, as he had run out of other rooms to put it in. When attempting to watch something on a nearby television, he noticed that the Home Mini was turning itself on several times during the show and trying to listen.

SEE: Artificial Intelligence and IT: The good, the bad and the scary (Tech Pro Research)

So, Russakovskii went to Google's My Activity portal on the web to see the behavior of his Google Assistant. It was here that he noticed the thousands of recordings with timestamps to go along with them.

As Russakovskii noted in the report, that recorded data is sent to Google by default in order to improve accuracy. It can be disabled, but Russakovskii's wasn't. So, his Google Home Mini was sending all of this data back to Google.

After contacting Google press relations with an urgent request explaining the issue, Russakovskii heard back in minutes. According to his report, Google told him that this was the first time they had heard of the issue. Eventually, Google sent an engineer, in person, to his house to swap out his Home Mini so they could test it. After testing the unit, Google sent the following response:

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.

Basically, the Google Home Mini has a feature that allows users to activate the Google Assistant by using a long touch, which was malfunctioning and registering phantom touches. The update sent by Google essentially kills the long-touch physical activation feature on all Google Minis, until Google can come up with a better solution, the report said.

Potentially impacted users can find more information on this Google support page.

Update: A Google spokesperson has informed TechRepublic that, although the company has only received a few reports of this issue, it will be permanently disabling the top touch feature on the Google Home Mini. Per a Google spokesperson email:

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.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. Android Police's Artem Russakovskii noticed that his Google Home Mini was spying on him thousands of times per day, sending data back to Google in the process.
  2. Google drove to Russakovskii's home to swap the devices, so they could study his unit and better understand the issue.
  3. In response, Google has disabled the malfunctioning touch activation feature for Google Assistant for all users, which caused the problematic recording.

Also see

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Image: Chris Monroe/CNET

About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

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