Google’s Covert Snooping Tool Installed Without User Consent
John Williamson / 5 years ago
Google’s reputation with privacy advocates is pretty abysmal and the latest revelation that audio footage has been monitored on PCs without permission will do little to improve matters. Open source developers noticed a peculiar line of code via the Chromium browser which analyzes background noise. In theory, this technology is implemented to offer rudimentary voice commands when the end user proclaims, “OK Google”. While this might add convenience to slower typists or people with impaired eyesight, it is designed to be an optional extra. In a developer blog post, a Google representative clarified, “First and foremost, while we do download the hotword module on startup, we *do not* activate it unless you opt into hotwording. If you go into “chrome://settings”, you will see a checkbox “Enable “Ok Google” to start a voice search”. This should be unchecked by default, and if you do not check it, the hotword module will not be started”.
There has been some contrasting evidence from irate developers who claim the software is enabled without user permission and contravenes the Chromium’s Open source ethos. Ofer Zelig is a vocal example and shared his personal experience:
“Google says the module is there so the browser could respond to “OK Google”. But what if I don’t want it at all? why injecting such a privacy-sensitive module in the first place instead of asking me whether I deliberately want this feature?”
Thankfully, under growing pressure from developers and privacy commentators, Google has now removed the speech module from Chromium recognizing that the inclusion couldn’t be classified as a piece of Open source code. It’s difficult to deduce if the automatic monitoring behavior was intentional or Google simply underestimated the widespread privacy concerns. Clearly, Google isn’t a trustworthy company when it comes to data sharing and it will take a miracle for industry peers and consumers to begin sharing information at ease.