If you've used any of Google's voice services for Assistant, Maps, and Search, you will have gotten a lengthy notice about some major changes as to how and why it collects audio of what you say. These actions are a response to last year's revelations about how humans were contracted to review those clips and how some of them got leaked. The top-line takeaway here is that every user has been opted out of data collection.

Specifically, Google has opted every account holder out of the permission which lets the company log Voice & Audio Activity. Users will be able to find the toggle under the Web & App Activity controls in their activity controls — here's a link to that section.

Voice data that has already been saved will remain saved unless the user manually deletes it. You can delete samples by using the "Filter by date & product" box under the search bar on the Google My Activity page and selecting "Voice and audio" at the bottom of the list. Otherwise, data can be deleted automatically based on the Auto-delete setting for your Web & App Activity — 3 months, 18 months, or never.

The company is also clarifying how it uses the audio it collects, saying that it uses the raw data, unlinked to users' accounts, to train new artificial intelligence voice recognition models and assigns human reviewers to transcribe and annotate the clips to aid model training. The data is also used to help users' devices better recognize their voice so that it can pick up "OK Google" Voice Match requests — this data is tied to the account. The company does not collect clips of voice recordings made to other Google services nor of locally-recorded audio.

We didn't know that Google had been using humans in its process until the practice was reported on by Belgium's VRT last July when it was able to obtain thousands of samples that contained anything from mundane requests for restaurants to very personal location data and, in some cases, private conversations and activities triggered by the user's device falsely detecting the hot phrase "Hey Google," or "OK Google." The company took humans off of reviews in light of the report and promised to keep them off until it was able to "re-confirm" users' voice and activity settings — that's basically what is happening with this notification right now.

The Verge is reporting that Google will not assign humans to review voice clips that have already been saved up to when the new policy took effect.

Full texts of the relevant passages are available below.

Quote

Here is the full text of the notification about the change:

Hi,

We recently updated the setting for voice and audio recordings in your Google Account and included more detail about how we use audio recordings to improve the Google products and technologies you use.

The updated setting allows Google to securely save audio recordings in your Google Account. Saved audio recordings help improve our audio recognition technologies, so products like Google Assistant can understand language even better in the future. To keep you in control of your audio recordings setting, we've turned it off for you until you are able to review the updated information. Visit your Google Account to review and enable the audio recordings setting if you choose.

At a glance, here's what this update means for you:

  • Simple controls for Google Assistant and other apps: The updated audio recordings setting is part of your Web & App Activity, which allows you to save activity like your searches to your Google Account. The audio recordings setting, when enabled, will save audio from your interactions with Google Assistant, Search, and Maps, which may be reviewed to help improve how our products understand speech. This updated setting does not apply to other Google services or to audio data saved on your device.
  • No impact to your previously saved audio data: This update does not affect any of your audio data previously saved to your Google Account.
  • You can choose to delete audio recordings at any time: Google will regularly delete audio recordings saved by this setting when they aren't needed to develop our products and technologies. You can also visit activity.google.com to manually delete your audio recordings from Google Assistant, Search, and Maps or choose to have them automatically deleted on an ongoing basis as part of your Web & App Activity's auto-delete controls.

To enable your audio recordings setting or to learn more about this update, you can visit your Google Account.

And here is Google's full explanation of how it uses your audio data:

About the audio recordings setting

When you speak to Google services, Google uses its audio recognition technologies to process your audio and respond to you. For example, if you touch the mic icon to search by voice, Google’s audio recognition technologies translate what you say into words and phrases that Search looks up in an index to give you the most relevant results.

Web & App Activity saves the things you do on Google sites, apps, and services in your Google Account and can include associated info like location. The optional audio recordings setting lets you also save audio recordings with Web & App Activity when you interact with Google Search, Assistant, and Maps. The audio recordings setting is off unless you choose to turn it on.

This setting affects anywhere you’re signed in to Search, Assistant, and Maps, for example, the Assistant on both the Google Home app and a Google Home smart speaker.

This setting does not affect audio saved on your device or by other Google services. Audio saved by other Google services, like Google Voice and YouTube, is managed in those services. Audio may also be saved on your device, for example, to recognize your voice if you’ve set up Voice Match. On-device audio can be used to improve audio recognition technologies on the device. Those improvements can be sent to Google, without audio recordings, to help develop and improve audio recognition technologies and the Google services that use them, for example, when the Improve Gboard setting is on, Gboard can improve recognition for everyone without sending what you say to the server.

You can visit account.google.com to see this and your other Google Account settings and learn about the data Google continues to collect and why at policies.google.com.

How audio recordings are used

Google uses audio saved by this setting to develop and improve its audio recognition technologies and the Google services that use them, like Google Assistant. For example, Google improved automatic speech recognition for data-scarce languages by training a single model on audio from data-rich languages, which allowed for real-time multilingual speech recognition.

The audio review process helps services better understand what people say to them. Trained reviewers analyze a sample of audio by listening to, transcribing, and annotating it, so they can better interpret the audio, for example, what someone is saying in a noisy environment or in a particular language. We take steps to protect your privacy as part of this process, for example, by disassociating your audio from your account when reviewers analyze it.

Your audio recordings can also be used to better recognize your voice over time. For example, your devices that have Voice Match enabled may better recognize when you say “Hey Google.”

When the audio recordings setting is on

When the audio recordings setting is on for your Web & App Activity, Google will save audio recordings when you interact with Google Search, Assistant, and Maps, in your Google Account with your Web & App Activity.

Audio is saved when your device detects an activation. Devices may support different types of activations, for example, saying “Hey Google,” squeezing your device, pressing the talk button on a headset, or touching the mic icon. Some devices include a few seconds before the activation to catch the complete request.

Sometimes, audio might be saved if your device incorrectly detects an activation, like a noise that sounds like “Hey Google.” We’re constantly working to make our systems better at reducing unintended activations.

If you use your device without an internet connection, audio may be saved in your account once you return online.

When the audio recordings setting is off

When the audio recordings setting is off for your Web & App Activity, Google will not save audio recordings when you interact with Google Search, Assistant, and Maps, in your Google Account with your Web & App Activity.

Previously saved audio is not deleted when this setting is off. You can delete it with your Web & App Activity at activity.google.com.

Google will continue to use its audio recognition technologies to process your audio and respond to you when you speak to Google services.

How to manage audio recordings

You have several options for managing audio recordings saved with Web & App Activity.

You can listen to your audio at activity.google.com. You can also choose an auto-delete option or delete it manually with your Web & App Activity. Google may delete audio sooner, once it's no longer needed for development and improvement, for example, less audio may be needed for some languages over time.

You can also download your audio at takeout.google.com.

You can choose to turn the audio recordings setting on or off any time under the Web & App Activity setting at account.google.com.

Learn about other data Google saves and why and how data is used to improve our services, including how technologies keep your information safe and how controls help you manage your privacy across our services, at policies.google.com.

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  • Nick