Google is making some changes to its audio data storage policies in the coming months. Most importantly for those who are concerned that people who are reviewing are listening to you, it plans to ask each user to confirm their choice to opt in to the program – which is "paused globally" pending an EU investigation.
The company is also making other changes, including a new "Hey Google" hotword detection sensitivity option, so users who want to make it less likely that their smart speakers will record unintentional sound.
The changes came in the wake of a summer where every major smart assistant is undergoing a re-examination of how data is stored, how long and who gets to listen to it. Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant stored all statements from users and got human reviewers to listen to that audio to rate how accurately the assistants transcribed them. This data often included sounds that were not intended at all for the smart speakers, but which were nevertheless accidentally recorded.
Google, Amazon and Apple all reacted differently to their individual scandals. For example, Amazon added clearer controls for the integrity of the Alexa app and enabled Alexa to delete your data. Apple issued a rare privacy-related apology and updated its policy to strengthen controls and prevent third-party entrepreneurs from hearing the user's sounds.
Google says it was always opt-in to have your voice recordings stored and reviewed and that voice recordings that people reviewed were also always removed from user accounts. But the so-called "Voice & Audio Activity (VAA)" setting was not very clear about what happened when you agreed to it. In the future, Google will explicitly mention human review for the VAA setting and, just as importantly, present the new, clearer screen to all Google Assistant users so that they can choose whether or not to opt in.
The company also says it will "significantly reduce the amount of audio data we store", and promises to "delete the vast majority of audio data associated with your account that is older than a few months" for people who have opted into VAA .
Google also made a vague promise to add "an extra layer of privacy filter" to the audio transcription process, which we say involves filtering out certain classes of audio data. It's not quite clear what that means, but Google says it intends to be more aggressive when it comes to automatically removing accidental recordings.
Google has a penchant for solving all the problems with more settings ̵
Before now, Google Assistant seems to be doing the best job of giving you full use of everything the assistant can do without requiring you to select voice recordings. Specifically, the only functionality Google says will be degraded if you deselect hotword detection. After Apple changed its policy, it no longer collects audio data by default.
Google and Amazon also do a good job of providing you web and app portals with controls that show you what data is collected and options for deleting it. Apple has no such portal, although it collects significantly less data in the first place.
Google has not set any clear dates for when these new policies will go through, although they mentioned that some of them will come into force "later this year."