Google has been recording you without your knowledge, did you know that?
The technology giant has effectively turned millions of its users’ smartphones into listening devices that can capture intimate conversations even when they aren’t in the room.
Android phones have Google Assistant which is similar to Apple’s Siri. Google says it only turns on and begins recording when you utter the words “OK Google”.
But an investigation over it has found that the virtual assistant is a little hard of hearing. In some cases, just saying “OK” in conversation prompted Google switching on your phone and recording around 20 seconds of audio.
It regularly switches on the microphone as you go about your day-to-day activities, none the wiser.
How Is Google Listening?
Before we continue, we should explain what exactly Google records from your Android device.
If you have a certain setting enabled on your phone, saying OK Google will cause it to listen for a command. Before you say this wake phrase, your phone is listening for the OK Google hotword, but it is not recording everything you say and uploading it to Google. Constantly recording everything a device hears would result in enormous amounts of useless data.
Even if you don’t have the OK Google hotword enabled, you can still use voice commands that Google records,too. Tapping the microphone icon on the search bar or holding the Home button to open Google Assistant will both immediately prompt you for a voice command.
What Google does record are the voice commands you say to your phone. If you say OK Google, how old is Jack Black?, Google holds onto the question and a few seconds of prior audio.
Once Google is done recording, it uploads the audio files to its computer servers – often dubbed “the cloud”.
These files are accessible from absolutely anywhere in the world – as long as you have an internet connection. That means any device that is signed into your personal Gmail or Google account can access the library of your deepest, darkest secrets. So if you’re on a laptop right now and signed into Gmail you could have a listen.
How to find out exactly what Google knows about you
- First, you’ll need to be signed into your Gmail or Google account.
- Once you’ve done that, type “history.google.com/history” into your web browser.
- You’ll be taken to a hub which contains your entire digital footprint. So be careful, it could make for some grim reading.
- This includes Maps searches and YouTube videos you’ve watched.
- Click on “Activity Controls “on the left-hand side of the page.
- Under “Web and App Activity”, click “Manage Activity”.
- If Google’s keeping tabs on you, there should be a stream of web pages and map searches that show up in chronological order.
- You can randomly delete searches, or select all the searches to make them disappear.
But Google is, first and foremost, an advertising company and its largest product is a targeted advert service, which it sells to the biggest brands in the world.
Billions of annual web searches, location and email data allow it to target the population with specialized marketing. There is no reason why it couldn’t do the same with your voice data, too.
What Does Google Do With This Data?
It’s important to note that aside from Google, only you can access your voice data. That is, of course, unless Google was breached.
Google explains that it uses your voice activity to help you get better results across its products, in ways like:
- Learning the sound of your voice.
- Learning how you say words and phrases.
- Recognizing when you say OK Google.
- Improving speech recognition across Google products that use your voice.
This is all useful, but a giant corporation keeping records of what you say is nonetheless concerning. An algorithm could easily parse through this information to figure out what you’re interested in based on what you say.
How Do I Listen to My Google Recordings?
So, now for the important question: how can I listen to the sound files Google has from my life? Here is how.
Google provides a portal for you to view all your interactions with its services. This includes voice recordings of your interactions with Google Assistant. In order to review them:
- First, you need to head to the Google My Activity page. You’ll see everything from YouTube videos you just watched to apps you’ve opened on your phone.
- Now, apply a filter to only show voice recordings. Click Filter by date & product at the top under the search bar.
- Next, uncheck All products under Filter by Google product and check only Voice & Audio.
- Click the Search button again.
You’ll then see a timeline of all the recordings Google has of your voice starting with the most recent. It bundles close events together, click a bundle to expand it and then hit Play to listen to the recording.
How Do You Turn Off Google Recording?
You can disable Google’s voice recording in two different ways.
Turn Off OK Google on Your Phone
You can disable Google’s voice recording in two different ways. The first is to turn off the OK Google detection on your phone, which you can do by performing the following:
- You should open Settings on your phone and enter the Google category.
- Select Search under Services.
- Next, tap Voice.
- You’ll see a Voice Match entry. This may also be listed as “OK Google” detection. Choose that.
- Disable the Say “Ok Google” any time slider. You may also want to disable While driving to prevent it in Google Maps and Android Auto, though it is convenient in those scenarios.
Once you do this, Google Assistant will only respond to OK Google when you have the Google app open (or when on the home screen of a Pixel or Nexus device). Your phone thus will no longer always be listening for the hotword.
Revoke Google’s Access to Your Microphone
To go further, you can deny the Google app permission to access your microphone: What Are Android Permissions and Why Should You Care?
- Open Settings on your phone and tap Apps & notifications.
- Tap See all X apps to get a full list.
- Scroll down to Google and select it.
- Tap Permissions and disable the Microphone slider.
Disable Google Assistant
If you’d like, you can completely disable the Google Assistant instead:
- Open Settings on your phone and enter the Google category.
- Select Search under Services.
- Tap Settings under Google Assistant.
- Tap your device name under Devices.
- Slide the Google Assistant toggle off.
Using Google Without Voice
Unless you turn off Google Assistant, you can still enjoy its benefits even without using your voice.
After you hold the Home button on your phone to open it, tap the keyboard icon in the bottom-left corner. This lets you type out a command for Google Assistant. It will respond just like if you had spoken it.
This isn’t as convenient, but that’s the cost of increased privacy. Of course, by using Google Assistant at all, Google is still able to see what you’re interested in and track you. If you’d rather avoid this, try DuckDuckGo, one of the best Android apps for protecting your smartphone security and privacy.
I should say that the same problem like Google recording goes for Apple iPhone users. The tech giant also stores your voice recordings to improve its Siri assistant, but you aren’t able to access them.
Apple says that the recordings are anonymized after 18 months. So nobody would be able to figure out who is speaking.
Happy to Shut Google Up?
We’ve gone over what Google records for on your Android phone, how to delete your voice history data, and the methods for stopping this recording. You may suffer a bit of inconvenience by disabling these features. But knowing that Google isn’t keeping a log of what you say is worth it. Leave a comment below if you have more things to share with us.