Google Battles Assistant Users Over Accidental Voice Recordings

Google is urging a judge to rule in its favor in a privacy lawsuit brought by users who claim Assistant-enabled devices recorded conversations without consent, and disclosed portions to outside contractors.

In papers filed Monday with U.S. District Court Judge Beth Labson Freeman in San Jose, California, Google argues that the consumers lack proof of their allegations.

“Despite more than three years of litigation, well over 3,000,000 pages of documents produced by Google, and fourteen depositions of Google’s witnesses on a wide range of topics, the undisputed evidence shows that plaintiffs cannot maintain any of their claims,” Google writes in a motion seeking summary judgment, meaning judgment in its favor before trial.

The company's papers come in a lawsuit brought in 2019 by a group of consumers who alleged that Google recorded conversations without permission, and revealed snippets to third parties. The consumers sued shortly after Dutch radio broadcaster VRT reported that Google Home smart speakers and Google Assistant transmitted consumers' conversations to Google even when people hadn't first given the “Hey, Google” or “OK, Google” commands. Those “hotwords” signal an intention to interact with the devices.



VRT also reported that Google sometimes sends portions of users' conversations to outside contractors who analyze language patterns. VRT said it had listened to more than 1,000 excerpts of conversations -- including 153 where participants hadn't said a hotword.

The users claimed Google violated various laws, including wiretap laws that prohibit companies from intercepting electronic communications without consent.

Google argues in its new motion that the evidence shows any recordings that occurred without a hotword are “an infrequent and incidental effect,” as opposed to intentional interceptions.

Google adds that it's “impossible to offer a voice activated service such as Assistant without some rate of error.”

The company contends the users lacked a reasonable expectation of privacy, given that they “knew or should have known that a voice activated service such as Assistant may occasionally activate in error” and failed to take “any steps to prevent or at least reduce the chances of Assistant capturing audio as a result of hotword initiated misactivations.”

The tech company also says the “undisputed evidence” shows that it didn't disclose erroneously recorded conversations involving the plaintiffs to human reviewers. Google adds that the plaintiffs “have no privacy interest in the content of others’ accounts, and thus have no standing to challenge such disclosure.”

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