Stephen McNeice
Stephen McNeice

21.24 1 Aug 2019


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Google will temporarily stop transcribing EU speech recordings picked up by its Assistant system, German officials have said.

The pause will last for at least three months.

It comes after details emerged of Google contractors listening to voice recordings and transcribing them in order to see if the voice commands are being correctly understood by Google's Assistant AI system.

Google Assistant is the software used in the company's products - such as its phones and the Home smart speakers - to recognise users' speech commands.

Details of the transcriptions emerged after some Dutch language recordings were leaked last month.

After reviewing more than 1,000 recordings, Belgian broadcaster VRT reported that "Google employees are systematically listening to audio files" - claiming some of the conversations "should never have been recorded".

In response, Google acknowledged that contracted language experts "review and transcribe a small set of queries", and also launched an investigation into the the leaking of the confidential Dutch audio data.

The company insisted it is taking steps to ensure a similar situation does not happen again.

Meanwhile, the Hamburg data protection authority has launched an "administrative procedure" against Google to temporarily stop them transcribing recordings.

Under GDPR rules, the Irish Data Protection Commission is responsible for taking action in such cases as Google's European operations are based here.

Politico reports that the commission is examining the issue after being informed last month.

However, the Hamburg authority says it is stepping in to take provisional action - which is allowed under the EU's data rules - to stop the transcriptions for the time being.

Google confirmed to the authority that the transcriptions will be stopped for at least three months - a move which covers the whole EU.

Johannes Caspar, the Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information, observed: "The use of speech assistance systems in the EU must comply with the data protection requirements of the GDPR.

"In the case of the Google Assistant, there are currently considerable doubts about this.

"The use of speech assistance systems must be transparent so that informed consent can be obtained from users."

He added that there are "further questions" to be answered about how tech giants' speech analysis systems work - and it will then be up to data protection authorities to take any necessary action.

Main image: Google Home smart speaker sitting on a shelf. Picture by: Frank Duenzl/DPA/PA Images

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