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Google Stores Your Voice Searches

Google Stores Your Voice Searches

by P. H. MadoreOctober 27, 2015

Google users probably are aware that Google keeps a record of all searches made by a given logged-in user. Likely enough, they also keep track of the data by other means, such as IP address, though this is not advertised. Google does its best to make the tracking into a feature. Occasionally one might actually forget what they’d searched for awhile back, and use the Google history feature to search for something again.

In reality, these searches are likely used to build improved search profiles, so that Google knows better what to serve its users. Potentially, given all the other metadata that Google is able to collect, such searches could also be useful to law enforcement and clandestine service agencies. It’s hard to tell exactly how far the web of the all-seeing government extends. After the Snowden revelations, things have either gotten much better or much worse. Considering the US Government’s response to Snowden’s leaks and whistleblowers in general, in which they are considered criminals instead of patriots upholding the Constitution at any cost, most people would probably agree that things have most likely gotten worse.

Most Google users probably wouldn’t have guessed that when they say “Okay, Google” and conduct a search with the voice feature on their Android phone, those searches are saved as well. As

Google's Headquarters

Google Headquarters, CA

recordings. This means for the presumably tens of thousands (or millions) of Android users who regularly use the search feature on their phones, there are dozens or even hundreds (if not more) of voice recordings saved by Google. With the NSA’s well-publicized spying program of having the ability to listen in to any call at any time in the United States (though they used to claim the powers were only used against foreigners), this creates a situation where voices can be tied to Google accounts.

For several years, Google has been working on its voice recognition program. It began with Google Voice, free voice mail with unlimited storage and the ability to have the messages transcribed in a text message. Users can also make calls from the platform. The program couldn’t have been cheap, since by now potentially millions of phone numbers had to be generated and registered. But Google has kept on with the program, not monetizing it despite several vectors from which they could. The advent of the Android and voice searching represented a new wave in the voice recognition program.

Also read: Snowden: Cisco Routers a Pakistani National Security Risk

Google dropped voice search on the desktop in version 46 earlier this month. Google claimed this was because not many people were using the feature. However, back in June, a Debian developer named Yoshihito Yoshino discovered that Chromium and Chrome on Linux were doing a strange thing once they installed: they were downloading an additional binary in the background, without the user’s permission, which installed the voice activation feature of Chrome. This basically meant that by default, Chromium would install its own listening device, and whenever your browser is open, it’s listening for commands.

Fears about Google snooping, for advertising purposes and for co-operation with the government, run deep with the concerned user community. Last year, security research Tal Alter told the Daily Mail that Google’s voice recognition features could be exploited by cyber criminals.

The Long Arm of the Government

There’s one last thing to note about Google’s voice program, and it’s a thing that many don’t consider. If Google has a given capability and governments are aware it has it, then what’s to stop the Google Voicegovernment from compelling Google to use such a capability in their favor? Supposing Google is entirely innocent of negative intentions, they may not be the ones to worry about.

If masses of people are using their voice, and potentially later on their camera devices, the government will find itself in possession of megatons of new data on its citizens. What they can use this data for is anyone’s guess. That data center in Utah has to be good for something. Certainly, in the case of Apple, the government is trying to force the company to unlock an iOS7 device, arguing that since Apple licenses the software instead of selling it, they are obligated to assist the government.

Fortunately, it’s possible (in theory) to delete your voice searches from Google’s servers. It may give you peace of mind, which is sometimes achieved only through not thinking about an attack vector. To do so, simply access your “voice and audio activity” panel in your Google account. If you don’t see any voice data, then it’s turned off. Again, that doesn’t mean malware isn’t able to exploit the recording features. It doesn’t mean the government can’t compel Google. It doesn’t mean Google isn’t using it for advertising purposes.

Images from Shutterstock.

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