If you’ve seen the articles about the journalist whose Google Home Mini spied on him, you’ll probably be happy to know that the company is trying to keep the same thing from happening to anyone who buys one. Google itself certainly wants prospective buyers to know about the change, for obvious reasons, but still, would you buy one of these AI-supported speakers knowing that this sort of thing is possible?
I have to say that when the Amazon Alexa smart speaker started to become popular, my mind immediately turned to Big Brother. What’s worse in this case is that people are happily paying money to help tech companies (and anyone else able to hack into these devices) spy on them. Indeed, the idea behind AI-assisted speakers like the Google Home Mini and Amazon Echo is nearly identical to George Orwell’s idea about the telescreens in his novel 1984, which is famous for its Big Brother character.
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In that case, Big Brother’s minions used the telescreens to spy on people in the upper and middle classes, and the telescreens were screens that doubled as a TV set. Today in the real world, we have speakers that function as a speaker to listen to music but, as Android Police writer Artem Russakovskii found, these smart speakers can also be used to spy on their owners. And people are forking over their hard-earned cash to help others spy on them!
On its Support Pages, Google announced that it has “fixed” the issue of the “Google Home Mini touch controls behaving incorrectly” by “permanently” removing all of the device’s “top touch functionality.” Google added that it decided to do this “to avoid any confusion and give you complete peace of mind while using your Mini.” All Google Home Mini speakers will get the update by the end of the day on Oct. 15.
The company said that customers who preordered one of its small AI-supported speakers won’t be affected, and the only Google Home Mini speakers that are affected by the defect are those that were handed out at the company’s Made by Google events.
If you haven’t heard the story, Russakovskii discovered the hard way how easy it is for AI-supported speakers to spy on him when the Google Home Mini he received to review for Android Police kept turning on and recording audio and sending it to Google. In his report about the spying, he even mentions the “tinfoil hat-wearer” folks who write about how such smart devices can be used for spying (yes, I’m one of them).
He admits that he pretty much wrote off all the privacy concerns until he noticed that his Google Home Mini was not working the same as all the other smart devices he has in his home. He said it was “waking up thousands of times a day, recording, then sending those recordings to Google,” and he added that all of it “was done quietly” with very little indication that it was happening.
He said his Google Home Mini kept turning on, listening to what was on the TV he was watching and then trying to respond by saying it didn’t understand. It took over his Spotify stream, which was playing on the smart device in his office, and switched it to the bathroom, which is where he put the supposedly malfunctioning device.
According to Google, the top touch controls on his Home Mini were malfunctioning, so that’s why it was spying on him, and not because it was working as planned. Call me a skeptic and a tin foil hat wearer, but this case just provides proof, and Google can’t make any changes that would convince me to buy the Home Mini or any other smart speaker, for that matter. What about you? Are you excited to hand over your hard-earned cash to help people spy on you?