The worry with smart home speakers is that they have the built-in ability to record everything you say and sending that data to the company that makes them or to hackers that obtained access to such devices.
But when the home speaker is Google’s new Home Mini, all sorts of red flags go up. After all, this is a company which has had to deal with a variety of privacy-infringing scandals in the past, and a company that makes money off your data.
The good news is that Google is fixing the issue before the Google Home Mini ships to your door.
Introduced just last week, the Google Home Mini is available to preorder at the moment, and it won’t ship sooner than October 19th. But reviewers already have access to the speaker, which is how this serious bug was discovered. It was Android Police’s Artem Russakovskii who first noticed the issue several days after getting his review unit:
Several days passed without me noticing anything wrong. In the meantime, as it turns out, the Mini was behaving very differently from all the other Homes and Echos in my home – it was waking up thousands of times a day, recording, then sending those recordings to Google. All of this was done quietly, with only the four lights on the unit I wasn’t looking at flashing on and then off.
When he noticed the Home Mini would constantly interrupt a show he was watching on a TV close by, looking to answer queries that were not there, Russakovskii checked Google’s My Activity portal for Assistant-specific queries. That’s when it became clear what happened:
I opened it up, and my jaw dropped. I saw thousands of items, each with a Play button and a timestamp, all attributed to the cryptically named com.google.android.apps.chirp/mushroom/prod and Assistant.
Before you freak out, you should know that smart speakers have to send your voice queries to cloud servers to return responses. But that should only happen after you use a hot word to activate it.
On Friday afternoon, he went on to contact Google about the matter, and much to his surprise, not only did Google answer the email, but they also sent a team over to pick up the device and examine it.
Google identified the problem and revealed that there was a problem with the touch panel at the top which can be used to activate the Assistant by long-pressing it. Apparently, some Home Mini devices register phantom touches, which leads to the speaker recording every sound around it.
The video below shows the faulty Google Home Mini in action and offers you an idea of how you can easily see if the speaker is recording everything: The lights turn on to tell you the speaker is active.
Google updated the software to disable the long press functionality, and it’s working on a long-term fix. A help page explains the issue and says that preordered Google Home Minis will not be affected.
It’s great to see Google hurry to fix the issue, but this is still a PR nightmare. Not only because the speaker recorded everything it could hear, but also because this incident indicates that Google’s hardware isn’t perfect, no matter what the company told us during last week’s press event. And we all remember how much Google insisted on the quality of the Home Mini’s design and materials.