Communicating with others via texting has become one of the most regularly used features on my smartphone. However, I don’t particularly enjoy fidgeting with the tightly spaced keys on the touchscreen. Manipulating them can be difficult — and a dangerous thing for those who do so while driving — so I prefer to do most of my texting using the voice-to-text feature. A simple tap on the microphone icon turns on the voice recognition and allows me to simply dictate my text messages. Now, admittedly (and surprisingly), I am disappointed by how often “smart” phone mistranslations still occur, but I can accept the inaccuracies for the convenience.
Recently, an unsettling notification started popping up on my screen each time I tapped the microphone icon. It said, “Saving audio to [email protected].” What? It’s saving my voice to my Google account? It referenced the Gmail ID I created when I initialized the service years ago. Why would it do that? The notification flashes up there quickly, then disappears. It did not used to do that. I called Tech Support at Verizon to get some clarity, but they were as surprised as I was. It was unclear whether this feature was something added by Verizon, by Samsung or by Google. My investigation revealed that my smartphone is gathering and retaining even more data than I previously suspected or realized. The truth turned out to be that this notification was added by the data-gathering leviathan, Google.
While it’s not widely publicized, it’s no secret Google has been recording the audio from your “OK Google” searches for years. This is their Siri-like feature, similar to the iPhone app. Later, I will tell you how to log in and listen to every silly question you have asked the service. However, I was unaware that every feature that uses the voice recognition technology on your phone is subject to recording by Google. This includes asking for map directions and using voice-to-text. Apple iPhone users are subject to similar storage of recordings with Siri, but users are unable to access that audio.
My impression is that Google has probably always been recording my voice text messages. They only recently added the notification about doing so because they probably got caught, so they included the notification to cover themselves. I had always assumed that the voice recognition feature for texting was a separate function that was part of the Verizon messaging app.
For lawyers and investigators, these saved audio text files could prove to be a valuable new source of information. Just as a video deposition can convey more meaning than the written word in a transcript, the actual tone of voice could provide much more meaning to an ambiguous string of text messages, plus background noises could also provide useful clues.
To listen to and delete your audio history, sign on to your Google account and within the Activity Controls section visit the Voice & Audio Activity page. Within all the Activity pages, you may be shocked to see how much data Google is gathering, including extensive location data, history of all Google searches as well as all YouTube videos viewed. But staying focused on audio, you will be able to review and play audio from every voice text message and every “OK Google” query for as far back in time as you care to scroll. You can choose to delete individual audio clips, or you can choose to delete by date range or other filters. You can also choose to delete it all. If you want to turn off future recording, there is a button for that back on the Voice & Audio Activity page. But be vigilant. It is likely that Google will automatically turn the feature back on the next time you receive a Google update.
Unfortunately, even if you turn it off, you are still not off the hook. Google advises that while your voice inputs will no longer be saved to your Google account, they still may be saved to Google using anonymous identifiers. Big Brother — I mean Google — is still listening!
If you choose to leave the Voice & Audio Activity features on, be aware of these two disquieting features. Google advises that audio can be saved even when your device is offline. I think that means that it is still listening even in Airplane Mode. Another note reports that Google also records “a few seconds before” you say the command “OK Google”. That means it has to be listening, and thus could presumably be recording all the time.
I had one experience recently that made me suspicious about this. Pop-up ads are typically expected after you do a Google search for a particular service or product. But I began to get some very unusual pop-up ads for a very unique thing which I had never searched for by voice or by typing. The only time I had ever mentioned this item was during a dinner conversation with friends several days prior. I cannot exclude the possibility that Google might have been eavesdropping on that conversation.•
• Stephen Bour ([email protected]) is an engineer and legal technology consultant in Indianapolis. His company, the Alliance for Litigation Support Inc., includes Bour Technical Services and Alliance Court Reporting. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author.