Eavesdropping Google Home Mini Units Are Igniting Privacy Concerns

October 11, 2017, 12:46 PM UTC

Google has acknowledged an issue with a limited number of its brand new web-connected speakers that listened—too much—to what their owners were saying.

The problem is that some Google Home Minis recorded what their owners said all the time, according to tech site Android Police. Devices like the Google Home and Amazon Echo are supposed to “listen” only after hearing their “wake” word or words—in this case that would be “Hey Google” or “OK Google.”

Google Home Mini could also be activated by pressing down on the top of the unit. Late Wednesday, the company said it had now disabled this option. It had already deleted any user input obtained by pressing the top.

According to Google:

We have made the decision to permanently remove all top touch functionality on the Google Home Mini. As before, the best way to control and activate Google Home Mini is through voice, by saying “Ok Google” or “Hey Google,” which is already how most people engage with our Google Home products. You can still adjust the volume by using the touch control on the side of the device.

Once a virtual personal assistant like Google Home or Amazon Echo, is activated users can ask the gadget to order a pizza or a taxi or check on the weather. The gadgets are supposed to do what’s asked and then go back to sleep until next time.

However, on Tuesday, the Android Police reviewer reported that his Home Mini was listening to him “24/7” (meaning 24 hours a day, seven days a week) and transmitted his words to Google (GOOG), which stored “pretty much everything going on around my Home Mini.”

The company subsequently acknowledged the problem and issued a fix, but noted that the glitch affected a small number Google Home Minis models given out to journalists and others at recent company events. The search giant said Google Minis pre-ordered by consumers are fine. Google also said it has removed “any activity/queries that were created” by the software glitch. Owners can delete any of their past activities from their “My Activity” page. It then decided to disable the touch option.

This is an “early days” snafu since Google debuted the miniature version of its web-connected module in San Francisco last week.

Related: Apple HomePod to Take On Amazon Echo, Google Home in Tough Battle

Still, gotchas like this unsettle some consumers who worry about how much information devices collect about them and how that data will be used down the road. For some would-be buyers, the price of convenience—in terms of personal information turned over to massive tech companies is too high.

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Android Police’s reviewer put it well, writing: “Without fail, every time a new listening device comes to market, some tinfoil hat-wearer points out how perfect they would be as modern-day Trojan horses for any of the three-letter acronym organizations—NSA, CIA, FBI—you name it.”

Tech companies say such fears are overblown. But cases like this make you wonder.

Note: (October 12, 2017 6:32 a.m.) This story was updated to reflect Google’s decision to disable the touch activation option for Google Home Mini.

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