Google is facing another scandal involving its violations of the privacy of users.
This time German authorities caught the giant company recording and transcribing private conversations.
Just weeks ago, Google was the target of an investigation by Ireland’s data privacy watchdog.
The nation’s Data Protection Commission said it would focus on the company’s apparent violation of the European Union’s privacy rules.
And Google is just one of the tech companies facing such scrutiny.
Facebook allowed the political consultancy company Cambridge Analytica to obtain access to the data of 87 million users.
And Google was fined about $56 million this year for privacy violations in France.
The latest development is an order from the data protection authority in Hamburg, Germany, to stop doing manual reviews of audio snippets generated by its voice AI.
The move also follows a leak last month of audio recordings from the Google Assistant program. A Dutch language reviewer gave more than 1,000 recordings to a Belgian news site which then was able to identify some of the people in the clips.
Alarmingly, the recordings included some peoples’ home addresses, their comments about medical conditions and one of a woman in distress.
The Hamburg agency said it was launching an Article 66 case, which permits an order to stop processing data if the authorities think there’s “an urgent need … to protect the rights and freedoms of data subjects.”
Google said it already has stopped the practice and is reviewing the data leak.
TechCrunch reported: “It’s not clear whether Google will be able to reinstate manual reviews in Europe in a way that’s compliant with the bloc’s privacy rules. The Hamburg DPA writes in a statement [in German] on its website that it has ‘significant doubts’ about whether Google Assistant complies with EU data-protection law.”
In the past, Google has insisted that recording and listening to audio clips of people using the company’s programs is needed to build speech technology.
An official for the company said in a statement: “These reviews help make voice recognition systems more inclusive of different accents and dialects across languages. We don’t associate audio clips with user accounts during the review process, and only perform reviews for around 0.2 percent of all clips.”
However, TechCrunch reported it’s “far from clear whether human review of audio recordings captured by any of the myriad always-on voice AI products and services now on the market will be able to be compatible with European’s fundamental privacy rights.”
The rights are listed in the General Data Protection Regulation for the EU.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center said Johannes Caspar, the head of the Hamburg data protection agency, found Google was recording and transcribing private conversations for examination by Google contractors.
“Caspar previously uncovered the fact that Google Street View vehicles were intercepting and recording private WiFi communications, a charge that Google denied until the hard drives in the Google vehicles were examined.”
The organization also said, “In the U.S., Google settled a ‘Spy-Fi’ case for $7 m with state AGs following the investigation by the German privacy agency.”
Casper found in the current investigation that the “use of speech assistance systems must be transparent so that informed consent can be obtained from users. In particular, this involves sufficient and transparent information for those concerned about the processing of voice commands, but also about the frequency and risks of misactivation.
“Finally, due account must be taken of the need to protect third parties affected by voice recordings. As a first step, further questions about the functioning of the speech analysis system need to be answered.
“The data protection authorities will then have to decide on the final measures that are necessary for their data protection-compliant operation,” Casper said.