Google Home can now recognize voices. What does that mean for privacy?

Google can now identify users on devices like Google Home. Are you comfortable with that?

home 1
Credit: IDG

Google has added support for up to six users to its virtual assistant device, Google Home. That’s a huge leap in the world of machine learning and artificial intelligence. It solves many problems related to voice-activated virtual assistants, while also creating some serious privacy concerns.

I have three Gmail users in my house who all access the same Google Home device, which is linked to my account. It’s used for playing music, watching videos through Nvidia Shield, helping with recipes, asking questions, checking appointments, and other such tasks.

Here’s the problem: I hate it. My Google search history and YouTube playlists are all messed up. It’s full of queries by my wife, guests, kids, and our au pair. My private appointments are accessible to anyone who can ask for them. Anyone can activate my Google Home device by yelling from outside the window and taking control of connected devices like oven, lights, and door lock (I was smart enough to not install smart locks). Worst of all, Google is not learning anything about me as it’s being used by everyone.

With support for multiple users, I can now add other members to my device. When Google Home hears a voice, it switches to that account and all the actions are performed against that user. It means that my YouTube account won’t have a playlist for Dave & Ava or full of videos on how to make carrot cakes. Now my wife and our au pair can access their own appointments and other such services from the same device, without creating privacy issues. It’s more or less like using the same computer, by logging into your account.

I love it, but one thing is still missing: the guest mode. Even when non-logged-in users are detected, Google Home still operates and provides access of the account of the primary user.

Google must create a guest mode on home that’s enabled by the user. It’s more serious than you think. While the Burger King ad was dismissed as a publicity stunt, it posed some serious questions that were largely ignored.

Google Home is connected to many sensitive devices, including door locks, thermostats, and ovens. Anyone can yell into your window while you're away from home, open doors, or turn the oven on and quite possibly burn the house down.

If you are using it in an office, anyone can check your calendar entries or access information that they should not.

It’s a serious privacy and security risk. Google must enforce the guest mode, and when no registered user is detected, all queries should be run in incognito mode without giving access to any user’s account. The primary user must be able to configure access to the connected devices in the guest mode. The primary user should also be able to fine tune which registered user has access to which devices. For example, I would not want my 5 year old son to be able to unlock doors, change thermostat settings, or turn the oven on.

Since Google Home is used as a common device across the household, it’s about time Google takes some tips from Apple by adding support for children. It’s really frustrating that unlike iOS devices, I can’t add my children to my Android or Google device so they can maintain their own search and YouTube history.

I expect Google to start thinking like users and do these three things: Guest mode, configurable access to devices by registered users, and a child mode.

Privacy concerns

If you're a privacy conscious person, which you must be, Google Home and all such virtual assistants that can ID users through voice, face, fingerprint or iris can pose some serious threats.

There is currently no government oversight over what these companies are doing with our biometric data. We don’t know how our data is being protected from theft, from the abuse by the company itself or becoming accessible to the government. Once your password is stolen, you can change it easily; but once your biometric data is stolen you can’t change it. What will you do?

The more such data is being used to log into your account and track your online and offline activities, the more you are at risk of being compromised. Up to this point companies were using such data as a password alternative to unlock devices, now Google is adding the capability to identify a registered user based on voice. That means whenever Google hears a voice, they know who you are, what you do, where you live. Everything.

That makes me nervous. I trust that Google are the good guys. But I wish there were some legal protection for users to ensure such valuable data will not be abused.

Unfortunately, we don’t have that protection. And looking at the way our government allowed ISPs to not only collect but also sell our data, I would not even want them to look at such technologies. They may just pass a law making it an open season for everyone to harvest such data on us.

That leads us to one big question: whether these newer technologies that can now identify us based on our voices are going to work for us, or against us.

Hey Google, open the doors.

I'm sorry, Swapnil. I'm afraid I can't do that.

This article is published as part of the IDG Contributor Network. Want to Join?