Google will temporarily stop contractors from listening to Assistant recordings around the world after leaked data sparked privacy concerns

  • Google has temporarily stopped contractors from listening to Assistant recordings around the world, Business Insider has learned, after the company was made aware of leaked data from a third-party reviewer in the Netherlands.
  • The decision comes as a result of a July report in which a Dutch media outlet used leaked audio snippets to show that some Google Assistant users had been recorded by their devices unknowingly. 
  • On Thursday, German authorities ordered Google to halt its language reviews for the Assistant for three months across the European Union. 
  • Google says that even before the orders from German authorities, it had paused its language review program around the world. 

Google has temporarily halted all language reviews for the voice-powered Assistant around the world, Business Insider has learned, after the company was made aware of leaked data from a third party reviewer in the Netherlands.

On Thursday, Google confirmed that it had paused language reviews — a practice by which the company contracts with "language experts" to transcribe snippets of audio data to improve its Assistant technology — but it was not clear whether these reviews would only be stopped in Europe, where the original leak took place. On Friday, a company spokesperson confirmed that Google has paused the program around the world.

"Shortly after we learned about the leaking of confidential Dutch audio data, we paused language reviews of the Assistant to investigate," a Google spokesperson said. "This paused reviews globally."

German authorities ordered Google on Thursday to halt its language reviews for the Assistant for three months. The European Union-wide ban comes as a result of a July report in which a Dutch media outlet used leaked audio snippets from a third-party reviewer to show that some Google Assistant users had been recorded by their devices unknowingly. 

Read more: Google says its workers are listening to and transcribing your Google Assistant commands

"The use of automatic speech assistants from providers such as Google, Apple and Amazon is proving to be highly risky for the privacy of those affected," Thursday's report from the Hamburg Commissioner read. "[The ban] is intended to provisionally protect the rights of privacy of data subjects for the time being." 

After news of the data leak in July, Google said it was "conducting a full review of our safeguards in this space to prevent misconduct like this from happening again."  This week, however, the company said that even before the orders from German authorities, it had already paused its language review program.

According to the Dutch report in July, out of the 1,000 audio snippets obtained by the media outlet, 153 were recorded unbeknownst to the user. A Google spokesperson told Business Insider at the time that these instances of "false accepts" — or, having the Assistant triggered without a clear command from the user, like "Hey Google" — were rare and that it puts several protections in place to prevent this from happening. The spokesperson, however, would not comment on the high number of "false accepts" from the Dutch report. 

In the past, Google has said it works with "language experts around the world to improve speech technology by transcribing a small set of queries." That work, it has said, is "critical to developing technology that powers products like the Google Assistant." Google says it only uses around 0.2% of all audio clips for its reviews and that it doesn't associate those clips with a user's account. 

Although no immediate action was taken by German authorities on Thursday against Apple or Amazon — two companies that have both been found to listen in on their users — the commissioner's report "invited" the companies "swiftly review" their policies and procedures. 

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