Is Google always listening to me?

Privacy has been a contentious issue recently, and rightly so. Big tech companies like Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon have faced high levels of scrutiny, as they are dealing with highly sensitive and personal data, some of which in ways that were seemingly less than transparent.

So, as Google Assistant-enabled devices rise in popularity, it’s important to ensure that we, the consumer, have a solid understanding of the types of information that Google collects, how they collect it, and how they use it.

Please note that this is not a comprehensive review of Google’s privacy policies, and the information contained herein may not be up-to-date. Please refer to Google’s Privacy Policy and their Google Nest Privacy Policy for the latest and most accurate information.

Microphones

When are they listening, what does Google do with this data, and how long is it stored?

At their core, Google Nest devices are voice-activated, and as a result, they are equipped with microphones. As a result, a common misconception is: Google is always listening through these microphones and will store everything you say forever. Let’s go through this statement to get a clearer understanding of how your data gets processed and used.

First, for the device to always be ready to listen to your command, it does have to always be ready for its “wake word”. This wake word, for all Google Assistant devices, is “Hey Google” or Okay Google”. However, this wake word processing, or “listening” is done offline, on-device. What this means is, although the microphone is always “listening” for this command, nothing you say before this command will be sent to Google.

You can test this by unplugging your Internet modem and leaving your Google Nest connected. Then, say, “Okay Google”. The device will respond by telling you it is not connected to the Internet, demonstrating that the wake word processing is done offline. If it required an internet connection to process the wake word, it would not know that you were talking to it and would therefore not respond by telling you that it is not online.

That said, everything you say after the wake word will be sent over the internet to Google, as also demonstrated by this test. What you say after the wake word gets sent to Google, processed automatically by Google’s artificial intelligence (not a human), and then your request gets sent back to the device so that it can execute your command and respond appropriately. 

All captured audio is accompanied by a visual indicator, such as blinking lights or an animated icon on your display. This is visible for the duration of the audio capture, and anything outside of this is not sent to Google. 

This information gets used in various ways, and the best thing to do to keep yourself informed is to review the privacy policies to ensure that you understand and agree to those terms.

The final part of the above statement is that this information is stored “forever”. Although this used to be the case unless otherwise manually deleted, Google has since introduced auto-delete functionality for its stored activity. This allows you to have the peace of mind that information will be automatically deleted after a period of time. For all new Google accounts, this period of time is set by default to 18 months. It can also be changed to delete your activity after three months automatically or to store it indefinitely.

View and manage your Google activity

To view or change your Google activity auto-delete settings, you can navigate to myactivity.google.com and log in using the account you wish to manage. From here, you can set your default auto-delete settings, as well as review and delete stored activity. For more help, you can refer to this guide.

Camera recordings

The Google Nest Hub Max is also equipped with a camera to use for video calling and other photo and video capture features. Similar to the microphone, the camera is only sending video to Google when you’re actively using it. Like with the microphone, there is a visual indicator to tell you when the camera is on. The Google Nest Hub Max has a green light beside the camera that is on while the camera is on.

Disable the microphone and camera

If you would like to disable the microphone and camera, you can do so at any time. On your Google Nest Hub Max, there is a rear switch at the top of the device that can be turned off to disable both the microphone and camera simultaneously. This is a hardware switch that disables all audio and video until the switch is toggled again. When you disable the microphone and camera, the status light above that display will be orange.

Final thoughts

Google collects and maintains a wealth of data, and there is still a long way to go before everything is secure and private by design, but we are getting closer to that goal. However, as the consumer, it is still our responsibility to ensure that the data we are giving to companies like Google is being collected and used appropriately and in ways that we are comfortable with. Being informed is one of the most important steps in ensuring our own privacy when using these helpful devices.

Novalte’s Managed Service

If you are a member of Novalte’s Managed Service for Independence and you would like help with the privacy features of your Google device, contact our Support Team for assistance, and we’d be happy to help!

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