Google has agreed to stop making transcripts of speech data picked up by its Google Assistant system in the European Union for at least the next three months, a German data-protection authority said Thursday.
The office of Johannes Caspar, who as Hamburg's commissioner for data protection acts as Germany's lead regulator of Google on privacy issues, said his authority received the assurance after opening proceedings against Google.
Based on recordings from whistleblowers, the media recently reported that Google's Home Speech Assistant was used to evaluate acoustic recordings by employees in order to optimize the speech recognition process. During these evaluations, employees of Google or of contracted companies listen to the voice recordings and transcribe them in order to analyze whether the recorded acoustic information wascorrectly processed by the AI system behind it.
As the whistleblowers'report has shown, the employees commissioned by Google were able to gather personal information -some of it sensitive -within the private and intimate sphere of the persons concerned from the recorded conversations. In addition, a not inconsiderable portion of the recordings were done due to incorrect activation. Against this background, the Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information (HmbBfDI) initiated an administrative procedure to prohibit Google from carrying out corresponding evaluations by employees or third parties for the period of three months.
Google said to the HmbBfDI in the course of these administrative proceedings that transcriptions of voice recordings will no longer be carried out at present and for at least three months from 1 August 2019. This covers all of the EU. In this respect, the HmbBfDI invided the competent authorities for other providers of speech assistance systems, such as Apple or Amazon, to also swiftly review the implementation of appropriate measures.
Caspar said there are "currently significant doubts" as to whether the use of Google Assistant complies with EU data-protection law. His office said that, while authorities in Ireland — where Google's European operation is headquartered — take the lead on such matters, EU data protection law allows authorities in other member countries to take action for a maximum of three months if there is an "urgent need to act" to protect people's rights and freedoms.
Apple said on Thursday it was also suspending its global internal program for “grading” a portion of user Siri commands after some consumers raised concerns about the program.
The Cupertino, California-based technology giant employs people that listen to less than 1% of Siri commands in order to improve the voice-based digital assistant.
“We are committed to delivering a great Siri experience while protecting user privacy,” Apple said in a statement. “While we conduct a thorough review, we are suspending Siri grading globally. Additionally, as part of a future software update, users will have the ability to choose to participate in grading.”