What you need to know about Google Assistant’s human review policy changes

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Here's how you can delete Google Assistant voice recording data.
Image: Cody DeBos | The Burn-In

Google made a surprising announcement recently when it informed users that it plans to reinstate its human review program. For almost a year, the Big Tech firm hasn’t been listening to users’ interactions with the Google Assistant.

Now, however, that’s going to change. Google sent an email to anyone who’s ever interacted with one of its apps using their voice to inform them of the changes. Of course, there is some confusion surrounding the change and many users are worried that their interactions are being spied on.

This guide should help clear up those misconceptions and inform you of what to expect from Google Assistant’s human review policy changes.

What Happened?

To be clear, nothing in the Google Assistant’s privacy policy has technically been altered. Google’s terms of service also remain unchanged. So, what’s different?

Google is changing the way it saves user voice recordings in an effort to try and get users to opt-in to its human review program. In the past, every time a user interacted with the Google Assistant by triggering it with “Hey, Google” or “Okay, Google,” a recording was created. Google also captures recordings when people interact with Assistant using their voice in Search, Maps, Gmail, or any of its other apps.

Now, it will no longer save those recordings—unless users opt-in to the program. However, opting in comes with a major caveat. Google is enlisting human staff members to review some of those recordings when they are saved.

It appears that the two are linked and that it isn’t possible to save recordings without opting-in to the human review program. That being said, users do have the option to turn off recordings altogether if they are concerned about their privacy.

By default, all users are opted-out of the program and will specifically need to change a setting if they want to save their recordings. That can be done from the My Google Account settings page.

Are My Recordings Private?

It’s worth noting that opting-in to the program doesn’t automatically mean recordings will be accessed by a human. Instead, doing so simply gives Google permission to review the recordings if it chooses to.

The company claims that it tries to protect user privacy and anonymity in a few ways.

For one, it doesn’t send entire recordings to human reviewers. They will only receive a “snippet” of audio. That seems a bit counterproductive, however, since most Google Assistant interactions are only a few seconds long to begin with.

Google also anonymizes the data associated with the audio recording before human reviewers get their hands on it. This theoretically makes it impossible to link a voice recording back to a certain Google account.

That being said, nothing in the digital world is truly impossible. A determined and skilled individual may be able to find a way to trace a recording back to a certain user.

Should I Opt-In?

Trying to decide whether to allow Google employees to review your voice interactions isn’t an easy choice. It feels strange to opt-in to such a program. Technically for users, there isn’t much benefit to doing so.

The email which Google sent to users to inform them of the changes says, “Saved audio recordings help improve our audio recognition technologies, so products like Google Assistant can understand language even better in the future.”

Aside from helping Google makes its products better there isn’t really anything to gain from opting-in to the program. Of course, any users who want to have their recordings saved will have to.

The recordings themselves don’t have much value. Not many people will be going through their activity history to listen to themselves asking Google Assistant to turn on the smart lights.

From a privacy standpoint, opting-in doesn’t make much sense. Choosing not to do so shouldn’t change anything about the Assistant’s user experience. Users will still be able to fully utilize the digital helper and the many features it offers. They simply won’t be able to go back and look at a history of their interactions.

Clearly, Google wants users to opt-in to the program. Without recordings, it won’t be able to analyze how Assistant interacts organically in the real world.

How Long Does Google Save Recordings?

For users that do choose to opt-in, the question remains of how long Google holds onto those voice recordings. The answer depends on when their account was created.

Users who created their account after June 24 will have their recordings saved for 18 months before they are automatically deleted. By default, older accounts won’t ever have their voice data deleted. However, users with those accounts can change the setting to delete recordings after either six or 18 months if they prefer.

To be clear, the change doesn’t affect any audio data that has previously been saved to a user’s Google account. That includes no human reviews of old audio data.

Users also have the ability to manually delete their audio recordings at any time by accessing the myactivity.google.com webpage.

Back to Normal

Those in touch with the tech industry will remember the widespread voice recording scandals of 2019. Companies like Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and Google all drew harsh criticism for using human employees to analyze recordings without clearly informing users of the practice in their respective privacy policies.

That led to several weeks of explanations of how machine learning works, apologies, policy changes, and public outrage. Ultimately, Big Tech companies either changed their human review policies to better inform users or discontinued the practice entirely.

Google suspended its human review program last September in response to the backlash. Back then, it said, “We won’t include your audio in the human review process unless you’ve reconfirmed your [Voice & Audio Activity] VAA setting as on.”

The recent changes are the fulfillment of that promise as Google tries to get its human review program back online.

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