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Google Chrome Ready to Eavesdrop on your Conversations

From the Amazon Echo to Mattel’s talking Barbie it looks like companies can’t wait to listen to everything that’s going on inside your private lives.  Privacy advocates seem to be a dying breed with apparently more and more people willing to surrender their rights for minor conveniences.

“What’s the problem?  I think it’s cool that I can talk to a machine and have it give me answers to my questions.”

The problem is how these devices work.  It is absolutely NOT the case that they process and parse your voice locally and THEN go off and search on the internet for the answers.  Instead, these devices all send the full voice stream over the internet to have computers somewhere else process the data.

So What?

So you don’t know who is processing that data.  In Mattel’s case they are sending the full audio stream to a third party.  Who is that third party?  What are they doing with the audio that they are supposed to be processing?  What are they doing with the audio they AREN’T supposed to be processing?  Sure they tell you that they only start listening when you say a certain phrase, but they have to process all that previous conversation so that they can hear the magic words.

You have no say in the matter.  For all you know that third party could be in bed with the government and allowing them access to every conversation.

Now Google is getting into the mix with their voice-activated OK Google feature.  The “don’t be evil” company is taking its first steps to being able to hear everything that goes on in your house.

The Problem

From the Private Internet Access blog, which has more details:

Yesterday, news broke that Google has been stealth downloading audio listeners onto every computer that runs Chrome, and transmits audio data back to Google. Effectively, this means that Google had taken itself the right to listen to every conversation in every room that runs Chrome somewhere, without any kind of consent from the people eavesdropped on. In official statements, Google shrugged off the practice with what amounts to “we can do that”.

Without consent, Google’s code had downloaded a black box of code that – according to itself – had turned on the microphone and was actively listening to your room.This was supposedly to enable the “Ok, Google” behavior – that when you say certain words, a search function is activated. Certainly a useful feature. Certainly something that enables eavesdropping of every conversation in the entire room, too.

Obviously, your own computer isn’t the one to analyze the actual search command. Google’s servers do. Which means that your computer had been stealth configured to send what was being said in your room to somebody else, to a private company in another country, without your consent or knowledge, an audio transmission triggered by… an unknown and unverifiable set of conditions.

Well, kind of.  Yes, the OK Google feature extension is installed by default (not usually what EXTENSION means).  But in the settings dialog box it is not enabled until you specifically turn it on:

OK Google enable setting is off by default, for now.
OK Google enable setting is off by default, for now.

For now.  Google updates Chrome all the time.  Sometime in the future they could theoretically change the default to ENABLED and push it to you in an update.

What you can do

So what can you do if this is not the behavior you want from Google Chrome?  At there are always solutions!

  • Uninstall Chrome.   I use Firefox, a company that seems to be much more concerned with protecting your privacy.
  • Don’t use Chrome unless you have to.
    • Make sure when you close the program it’s really closed.
    • Make sure it’s not your default browser.
    • Make sure it’s not starting up in the background when your computer boots.
  • After every update check all of your privacy settings.  Make sure none have reverted to bad behavior.  Make sure there aren’t any new ones!

Do You Believe Them?

Of course, people were quick to downplay the alarm. “It only listens when you say ‘Ok, Google’.” (Ok, so how does it know to start listening just before I’m about to say ‘Ok, Google?’) “It’s no big deal.” (A company stealth installs an audio listener that listens to every room in the world it can, and transmits audio data to the mothership when it encounters an unknown, possibly individually tailored, list of keywords – and it’s no big deal!?) “You can opt out. It’s in the Terms of Service.” (No. Just no. This is not something that is the slightest amount of permissible just because it’s hidden in legalese.) “It’s opt-in. It won’t really listen unless you check that box.” (Perhaps. We don’t know, Google just downloaded a black box onto my computer. And it may not be the same black box as was downloaded onto yours. )

Other source: chromium bug report

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