Google secretly installed software capable of picking up conversations held in front of a computer, a Melbourne-based Israeli tech blogger revealed this week. Faced with an outcry over the practice, the internet giant promised on Wednesday that it would remove the offending component.
Installed in Chromium, the open-source basis for the Google Chrome browser (used by close to 35% of people), the software was meant to support “OK, Google,” a “hotword detection” feature which prompts a response when you talk to it. But, in effect, Google’s code has actually downloaded “audio listeners onto every computer that runs Chrome, and transmits audio data back to Google,” according to a privacy website run by Swedish IT entrepreneur and founder of the Swedish Pirate party Rick Falkvinge.
A Google spokesman initially told the Guardian: “We’re sure you’ll be relieved to learn we’re not listening to your conversations – nor do we want to. We’re simply giving Chrome users the ability to search hands free at their computers by saying “OK Google” while on the Google homepage – and only if they choose to opt in to the feature.”
On Wednesday, however, Google announced it was removing the hotwording component entirely from Chromium, acknowledging: “It is not open source, it does not belong in the open source browser.”
Blogger Ofer Zelig offered a hair-raising account of what the listening component looks like from a user’s perspective.
“A few days ago, while I was working on my PC at home, I noticed something strange. My PC has a web camera (combined with a microphone) that sits on top of my monitor, and the camera has a small blue LED that lights when the camera and/or microphone are operating,” Zelig wrote on his blog.
“While I was working I thought I’m noticing that an LED goes on and off, on the corner of my eyesight. And after a few times when it just seemed weird, I sat to watch for it and saw it happening. Every few seconds or so. I opened Task Manager (I’m working on Windows. Apologies.) and looked for a process to blame on that dodgy activity. Who is listening to me? I didn’t find anything. I know my PC pretty well and I didn’t have any crappy malware accidentally installed. There were a few suspicious processes that I shut down but it didn’t make any difference, and I left it like that.
“And then I’ve come across this bug report – it’s Google! And according to them it’s not a bug! They silently put this new module in Chrome.”
The news had internet privacy advocates up in arms.
“Google had taken itself the right to listen to every conversation in every room that runs Chrome somewhere, without any kind of consent from the people eavesdropped on. In official statements, Google shrugged off the practice with what amounts to ‘we can do that,'” wrote Falkvinge.