Listen Up: A Privacy Concern With Google Chrome?
Note: The issues raised in the articles below deals with an open source version of Google Chrome. If nothing else these reports and others illustrate the complex nature of many digital privacy issues or potential privacy issues.
From The Guardian:
First spotted by open source developers, the Chromium browser – the open source basis for Google’s Chrome – began remotely installing audio-snooping code that was capable of listening to users.
It was designed to support Chrome’s new “OK, Google” hotword detection – which makes the computer respond when you talk to it – but was installed, and, some users have claimed, it is activated on computers without their permission.
“Without consent, Google’s code had downloaded a black box of code that – according to itself – had turned on the microphone and was actively listening to your room,” said Rick Falkvinge, the Pirate party founder, in a blog post. “Which means that your computer had been stealth configured to send what was being said in your room to somebody else, to a private company in another country, without your consent or knowledge, an audio transmission triggered by … an unknown and unverifiable set of conditions.”
Google responded to complaints via its developer boards. It said: “While we do download the hotword module on startup, we do not activate it unless you opt in to hotwording.”
However, reports from developers indicate otherwise.
A Google spokeswoman said on Wednesday: “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.”
Yes, the open source version of the browser, which is not owned by Google, automatically installs proprietary Google technology for both managing whether the microphone is enabled and listening for hotwords. In response Google has essentially said, yes, we’ve baked it into the open source browser, but it’s not our job to ensure others distributing their own version of the browser disable it…
In summary, what’s going on here is more misunderstanding than cause for concern. Google has been moving in the right directions in terms of empowering its users through strengthened privacy controls, adding new granular permissions controls in Android M as well as already having them in Chrome. But with anxiety at an all time high due to the publication of information surrounding United States secret data collection programs, and Google’s thirst for information about its users to target ads against them (still its biggest money maker), it seems like ambiguity around how it treats access to the microphone for its own search engine might be something worth addressing.
Hat Tip/Thanks! @mattrweaver
About Gary Price
Gary Price (email@example.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. He earned his MLIS degree from Wayne State University in Detroit. Price has won several awards including the SLA Innovations in Technology Award and Alumnus of the Year from the Wayne St. University Library and Information Science Program. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com.