Remember when the biggest tech news wasn't that TikTok was about to get banned, but instead was that companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook were listening to recordings of your voice interactions with their products? You don't? That's understandable, a few things have happened since then.
A year ago, however, it was a big deal, and tech companies said they'd stop human review of those recordings, at least until they figured out how to appropriately give users the right to opt in. Over time, most of those tech companies quietly resumed using people to listen to your recordings, though with changes that better protect your privacy.
Now, Google is ready to do the same.
You may have gotten an email from the company that explains all of that, but the TL;DR version is that the company would very much like you to allow it to listen to Google Assistant voice interactions.
In an email, the company says:
We recently updated the setting for voice and audio recordings in your Google Account and included more detail about how we use audio recordings to improve the Google products and technologies you use.
The updated setting allows Google to securely save audio recordings in your Google Account. Saved audio recordings help improve our audio recognition technologies, so products like Google Assistant can understand language even better in the future. To keep you in control of your audio recordings setting, we've turned it off for you until you are able to review the updated information.
There are really two important things to understand about this email. The first is why Google wants to save your audio in the first place.
To be clear, Google really has no interest in snooping on your conversations. I mean, I think we can all agree the company has more important things going on right now. As good as artificial intelligence (AI) has gotten, there's still no substitute for having a human listen to an interaction to determine whether Google Assistant understood a question and actually returned the correct response.
The reality is that AI is only as good as the people who feed it information and instructions. Making it better means real people listening to real interactions and making adjustments. That's what Google really cares about.
That said, just because Google doesn't care that much about the conversation you were having with a co-worker while the Google Nest speaker on your desk was listening, that doesn't mean every contractor the company uses has the same level of integrity. The large number of participants probably means that someone somewhere will do something wrong.
It also doesn't mean that some people simply don't like the idea of anyone recording and listening to what they are saying in the privacy of their own home or office. I get it. I'm one of those people.
Which leads to the second thing you should know about this email. Google has turned the setting off for everyone by default. It isn't often that I give credit to Google for protecting privacy, but this is one of those cases. I've been critical in the past of how Google doesn't always make it easy for people to understand or change how their data is used, as evidenced by the fact that so few people ever make those changes.
In response a Google spokesperson told me:
We are deeply focused on making sure our privacy settings are easy to use and readily accessible anytime people need them. That's why our privacy controls and settings are available directly from our products, like Search, Maps and YouTube, and why we provide one-click access to your Google Account which takes you directly to Privacy Checkup. We also regularly prompt users through in-product notifications and emails to make sure their privacy and security settings are up-to-date and right for them. We will continue our ongoing work to keep people's information safe, treat it responsibly, and put our users in control.
Turning the feature off by default is a very good start. When it comes to how your audio recordings are used, I agree that Google has gone above and beyond to keep your information safe and "treat it responsibly."
By the way, even if you choose to allow saved audio recordings, it's worth remembering that Google does allow you to delete recordings at any time. You can visit that Privacy Checkup link and choose to have them automatically deleted every three or 18 months.
Finally, if you ever say something that you'd rather Google not save, you can also simply say "Hey Google, that wasn't for you," and Google Assistant will delete the recording. You can even say "Hey Google, delete all of my audio for today," and it will.
Or, now you can simply do nothing, and know that no one will be listening at all.