Pointing to a component that was activated within Chromium, Google’s open source browser, privacy advocates are vehemently opposing Google’s software that could infringe on user privacy with the means to listen in on conversations held in the vicinity of the computer’s microphone, according to a report in the Guardian.
The change was first spotted by open source developers while using the Chromium browser. The browser forms the open source code for Google’s widely used browser Chrome, which began to remotely install audio-snooping code. This code makes it possible for the microphone in the computer to listen to its users and send the audio back to Google’s cloud based search assistant.
“OK, Google.” The hot-word
The code was embedded to help support “OK, Google.” This hot-word detection feature which gets the computer to respond when you talk to it is a newly introduced in Google’s Chrome browser, having proved to be wildly popular among Android users everywhere. However, the code was installed without permission, users have claimed. Furthermore, the code was activated as well, allegedly.
Presently, the feature is installed by default in Google’s Chrome browser.
Rick Falkvinge, the founder of the Pirate party wrote in a blog post saying: “Without consent, Google’s code had downloaded a black box of code that – according to itself – had turned on the microphone and was actively listening to your room.”
He added, “Which means that your computer had been stealth configured to send what was being said in your room to somebody else, to a private company in another country, without your consent or knowledge, an audio transmission triggered by … an unknown and unverifiable set of conditions.”
Privacy advocates and open source researchers are also vehement in their disapproval of the code being embedded in Chromium, the completely open-source variant of Chrome. They argue that the listening code is considered a ‘black box’ which does not comply with the open source audit process.
Falkvinge summed up the sentiment, saying: “We don’t know and can’t know what this black box does.”
Google’s response: It listens only after Opting-in
User complaints were heeded to by Google, with the tech giant responding via its developer forums, stating: “While we do download the hotword module on startup, we do not activate it unless you opt in to hotwording.”
This was quickly refuted by developers, however.
Ofer Zelig, a developer noted in a blog post that:
- An LED light went on and off with his webcam showing signs of activity.
- Upon watching and observing closely, the code was indeed activated, listening in to the surroundings every few seconds or so.
Google was forced to release a statement on Wednesday, with a spokeswoman saying:
“We’re sure you’ll be relieved to learn we’re not listening to your conversations – nor do we want to. We’re simply giving Chrome users the ability to search hands free at their computers by saying “OK Google” while on the Google homepage – and only if they choose to opt in to the feature.”