Google Smart Speakers Spotted Listening to More Than Just Voice Commands

Google Home smart speaker is reported to have accidentally been listening in for critical sounds, even without the usage of the trigger word that is required to activate it. Google had announced support for ‘critical sounds’ for its Nest Aware home security paid subscribers wherein Nest speakers and displays will notify the user if a critical sound is detected, like a smoke alarm or glass breaking. This paid feature was briefly spotted working for a few unsuspecting unsubscribed Google smart speaker users as well. Google says that a silent software update had mistakenly activated it for unsubscribed users, but that update has been rolled back now.

A Reddit user first reported the incident when the user’s Android device notified the user about the smoke alarm going off. The user writes, “Burned something in the kitchen and the cheap $10 smoke detector went off. Then I got a notification on my phone that Google heard the smoke detector going off. Pretty rad, Google.”

A Google spokesperson confirmed to Protocol that the feature was accidentally enabled for unsubscribed users, but that has been rolled back now. “A recent software update enabled these alerts on some of our speakers that didn’t have a subscription, but we’ve since rolled that back.”

While the feature looks to be helpful in the broader sense for the security of the home, a silent seamless Google update enabling features without any intimation or user intervention is a cause of concern. It also raises questions on claims of privacy that these smart speakers come with, something that has been under debate since years. As mentioned, the feature was rolled out for Nest Aware paid subscribers in May.

This ‘critical sounds’ feature being spotted on a broad set of users without subscription also comes at an opportune time. Google has just acquired a 6.6 percent stake in home security provider ADT. As part of the deal, Google may look to provide this ‘critical sound’ listening feature to all users – subscribers and non-subscribers – in the future. The tech giant offered no clarity on future plans.

For now, ADT looks to use Nest’s Internet-connected cameras, as well as another device called the Nest Home Hub that comes with an Internet-connected camera, as part of its customers’ security systems.


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