23 March, 2023

Google Smart Speakers Was Noticed Listening to More Than Just Voice Commands

Just as Google has shown concern for ‘critical sounds’ for its Nest Aware home security paid subscribers; a few of its users were able to enjoy and have a feel of what the feature brings.

Even without the trigger words that’s used to activate Google Home smart speaker to start listening to sounds it was caught listening in for critical sounds. Google had announced support for ‘critical sounds’ for its Nest Aware home security paid subscribers wherein Nest speakers and displays will notify the user if a critical sound is detected, like a smoke alarm or glass breaking. This paid feature was briefly spotted working for a few unsuspecting unsubscribed Google smart speaker users as well. Google says that a silent software update had mistakenly activated it for unsubscribed users, but that update has been rolled back now.

A Reddit user first reported the incident when the user’s Android device notified the user about the smoke alarm going off. The user writes, “Burned something in the kitchen and the cheap $10 smoke detector went off. Then I got a notification on my phone that Google heard the smoke detector going off. Pretty rad, Google.”

A Statement from the Google spokesperson confirmed to Protocol that the feature was mistakenly enabled for users who are unsubscribed, but that has been rolled back now. “A recent software update enabled these alerts on some of our speakers that didn’t have a subscription, but we’ve since rolled that back.”        

With the great importance associated with the broader sense for the security of the home, a silent seamless Google update enabling features without any intimation or user intervention is a cause of concern. It also raises questions on claims of privacy that these smart speakers come with, something that has been under debate since years. As mentioned, the feature was rolled out for Nest Aware paid subscribers in May.

Note that this ‘critical sounds’ feature that happened to be experienced by some sets of unsubscribed users also comes at an opportune time. Google has just acquired a 6.6 percent stake in home security provider ADT. As part of the deal, Google may look to provide this ‘critical sound’ listening feature to all users – subscribers and non-subscribers – in the future. The tech giant offered no clarity on future plans.            

It appears that, ADT will be using Nest’s Internet-connected cameras, as well as another device called the Nest Home Hub that comes with an Internet-connected camera, as part of its customers’ security systems.