When Google announced the Pixel 2 smartphones, it also announced its response to Amazon’s growing dominance in the smart home speaker market. While the Google Home Max was designed to appeal to audiophiles, the Google Home Mini was meant for those looking into more affordable ways to fill their homes with Google Assistant devices. Unfortunately, it seems that for what is claimed to be a small percentage of new owners of the Home Mini, that affordability came at the price of privacy because of a hardware issue that made the small speaker record everything 24/7 and send those to Google.
Smart speakers like the Google Home and Amazon Echo naturally have always listening features which is critical to have them hear their verbal triggers. What they’re not always doing, or shouldn’t be, is to actually record what they hear unless you start actually giving them the commands. That is, they’re only always listening for the triggers and only start recording voice commands after the trigger.
That wasn’t the case with some of the Google Home Minis. Android Police’s Artem Russakovskii discovered this almost by accident because the Home Mini not only failed to respond when he actually tried triggering it, it was also responding, and failing, to anything it hears around it. Investigating it a bit more, he discovered that the Mini was recording everything it was hearing all day long, as if they were commands being given to it after the “OK, Google” trigger.
It turns out there are some units with a hardware defect that caused this privacy-violating behavior. The Google Home Mini features a long press touch gesture to activate Google Assistant without the user having to say “OK, Google”. In the case of defective units, however, the Minis’ touch sensor was registering the gesture even when there was nothing touching it, causing it to always be recording everything that it hears around it. Google has already started rolling out a firmware upgrade that, unfortunately, disables that touch control for all Home Minis, whether they were affected by the issue or not. This is the only way they can address the issue until they have a long-term solution that probably involves a new batch of speakers.
Google’s support page also notes that it has deleted all activities and queries on users’s My Activity page dating October 4 until October 7, when the bug was still in effect. It should probably be a good time for owners to double check their activity in case Google missed something. And, yes, it’s also a reminder that everything you ask Google Assistant gets recorded and sent to Google’s servers and that you can disable that behavior at the cost of accuracy and improvement.