Many consumers are confused by the “always listening” feature of smart speakers. They take it to mean that is always recording. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to tell people that this is a myth, they only listen for their wake word and because of the way the microphone is designed, even background noise when recording is difficult to hear over the command. But now they have reason to be skeptical. Android Police’s Artem Russakovskii discovered that his Google Home Mini was acting strangely:
“The Mini was behaving very differently from all the other Homes and Echos in my home – it was waking up thousands of times a day, recording, then sending those recordings to Google. All of this was done quietly, with only the four lights on the unit I wasn’t looking at flashing on and then off.”
A Serious Glitch
He only discovered the odd behavior meant it was recording after accessing Google’s My Activity portal to see his Google Assistant activity. As you can see below, thousands of items were recorded over just three days.
While most of the erroneously recorded speech was inaudible, some comments were able to be transcribed. Russakovskii immediately contacted Google PR. And to demonstrate how serious the issue was, Google told him they were sending an engineer to pick up the Google Home Mini that night. It was indeed, a serious glitch:
The Google Home Mini supports hotword activation through a long press on the touch panel. This method allows people to activate the Google Assistant without saying the hotword. On a very small number of Google Home Mini devices, Google is seeing the touch panel register “phantom” touch events.
Google has since fixed the glitch on all Google Home Minis with a software update. All long press events will now be ignored. But the ramifications could be far wider than just the few Google Home Minis the company claims were impacted by the glitch.
It Could Have Been Worse
Google’s response to the glitch was remarkable. Within ten minutes, Google responded to Russakovskii and in just a few hours he had a Google engineer at his door. In less than 12 hours, Google implemented a patch to fix the glitch and had already issued an update. Now that’s customer service.
But if Russakovskii had not reported the glitch or if Google had not responded quickly, the company could have had a real PR nightmare on its hands with the Mini shipping in mass next week. Instead, Google can now turn this potential firestorm into good press. The company’s quick reaction should demonstrate to consumers that it values their privacy and calm fears that their smart speaker is actually a Trojan Horse. Google is listening to its consumers, just not the way some fear.