The Trust in Privacy

Day 11 – October 12th

Last week, I wrote my annual piece about this year’s line of new Google hardware, reviewing such products as the Pixel 2, Pixelbook, and the product under the spotlight today: the Google Home Mini.

google mini.jpg
Google’s new Home Mini

A few days ago, Artem Russakovskii, a reviewer who received a test Google Home Mini, discovered that his device was turning on, recording his conversations, and uploading them to Google – all without him prompting the device. He found this out by going to his personal activity page on Google, a site that shows users’ all the ways they are interacting with any of Google’s services. I’d recommend checking that out for yourself.

Now, when using Google Home Mini as it is intended, you have to first prompt the device with the use of the top button or just by saying “OK Google”/”Hey Google” before it starts actively listening for your queries.

Google was quick to come out with an explanation, stating that the top button on the Mini was detecting “ghost touches” – basically false signals that it perceived as touches – and thus, turning on its listening functionality. They also quickly rolled out a software update that disables this button, obviously hoping to stop any bad press as fast as they could – smart, given that they intended to ship the Mini for sale on the 19th.

When I first heard about this glitch, I was actually planning on writing this piece from a completely different editorial lens: one about how Google was quick to jump to a design defect in order to hide the always-on, always-recording, and always-uploading functionality of the product. How devices like this are perpetually mining your queries to provide another input into the personalized advertisement equation that Google has made billions on (which is probably still true). How in a world where Russakovskii hadn’t figured this out, this “bug” would still be actively used and profited on.

However, when I read the statement made by Google, it seems to me to be a genuine product defect, and not an intended malicious action. Here is Google’s full statement:

We take user privacy and product quality concerns very seriously. Although we only received a few reports of this issue, we want people to have complete peace of mind while using Google Home Mini.
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.

Completely removing the top touch functionality on the Mini strikes a blow at some of the device’s secondary functionality, such as tactically using the device to play music or stop an alarm. Though these functionalities can still be utilized through speech, it is hard to see why a company would take such a drastic step unless it wanted to show the market that it recognized the defect and intended to fix it no matter what.

This gets me to my real point: as we are entering in a new technological era where home devices are seamlessly integrated into our lives, it all comes down to trust. Sure these devices provide real value to consumers, but if there is a market opinion that the companies behind them are using consumer data nefariously, both the sales of the product and the reputation of those companies are in jeopardy. This lack of trust could very well spill into Google’s other products and make any consumer feel uncomfortable using them. After all, the idea of an always listening device is scary, no matter how useful or valuable it may be. However, in the case of the Mini, Google has taken the right steps to manage this crisis and put people’s privacy first (hopefully).

Until Tomorrow!

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