google home mini spying recording audio

Screengrab via Android Police/YouTube

Google rushes fix after new Home Mini speaker gets caught spying

Thousands of audio files were recorded.

 

Phillip Tracy

Tech

Published Oct 11, 2017   Updated May 22, 2021, 2:39 pm CDT

Google was forced to patch its newly released Home Mini voice-enabled speaker after a malfunction caused some units to spy on their owners.

Journalist Artem Russakovskii of Android Police noticed something was off with the $49 device he took home from the “Made by Google” launch event in San Francisco. Every time he tried to watch TV, his nearby Home Mini would wake up “several times a minute” and try to respond.

Reports of TV shows or commercials activating smart speakers aren’t uncommon. All smart speakers jump to life when they hear a certain hotword. For Amazon, it’s “Alexa,” for the Home Mini it’s “Hey, Google.” But Russakovskii knew his speaker shouldn’t be turning on so frequently, so he decided to investigate.

In the “Assistant” section of his Google “My Activity” portal were thousands of audio files. This could only mean one thing: the Home Mini was turning on by itself, recording everything it heard in Russakovskii’s home, and transmitting it to Google’s servers.

Stunned by the discovery, Russakovskii wanted to figure out if there was any warning this was happening. So he turned the TV on again, set his speaker nearby, and started recording. Here’s what he witnessed:

As you can see, the Home Mini randomly wakes up, flashes its four lights as it records, and then turns off without making a sound.

Russakovskii’s next move was to contact Google directly. He notes the search giant replied immediately saying it would look into the issue and asked that he exchange his unit for a newer version. A day later, he received an explanation for why his unit was spying on him.

“We have learned of an issue impacting a small number of Google Home Minis that could cause the touch mechanism to behave incorrectly,” Google claimed. “We are rolling out a software update today that should address the issue.”

What does that mean? Google added a way to activate its new speaker using a touch panel so users don’t always have to talk to their gadgets. Unfortunately, the touch panels on some units, specifically those handed out to journalists at Made by Google, acted like someone was constantly pressing them, triggering the device to turn on and start recording. The malfunction is thought to have affected around 4,000 units.

To its credit, Google fixed the issue in just four days by disabling the touch panel altogether. Now users can only activate Google Assistant using hotwords.

Google released a dedicated support page on the issue with additional details.

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*First Published: Oct 11, 2017, 12:34 pm CDT