Users of Google’s voice-control features such as OK Google are probably aware that the company stores the voice recordings it receives when they talk to it. But it’s still a bit of a shock to be confronted with a list of all the recordings the company has ever made of you.
Google’s voice and audio activity page isn’t promoted heavily by the company, and visiting it gives a hint as to why. If you have (or have ever had) an Android phone with Google’s “OK Google” voice-control system, the page should show a list of every command you have ever given it – replete with a little play button next to it.
In my case, that means I found a recording of me asking for the nearest Waitrose in Glasgow (well, I am a Guardian journalist), lazily doing Fahrenheit conversions for cooking, trying to get driving directions to an Ikea, and just hurling random obscenities as a dumb, unfeeling computer (like I said, I am a Guardian journalist).
The feature is one of a number of attempts by the company to demystify its data-collection service. Similarly, Google offers a location history, showing users any location the company has tracked them to, through apps such as Google Maps as well as simply using an Android phone.
But in both cases, the features create a sense of unease just as strongly as they do reassurance. Yes, it’s good to be able to see what the company keeps. But it’s also a stark reminder of just how much it has in the first place.
That’s not to say the company doesn’t have good reasons. If you use voice control on a Google product, you’ve benefited from the fact that it stores your voice, both in aggregate (the large amount of data it harvests from users allows it to improve recognition) and in particular (by learning your specific voice, it can get better at recognising it). And if you use the services, you have already opted in to storing your data once (though you may not remember doing so). But if you’re still left unsettled by the feature, you can switch it off – sort of.
Turning voice Activity off doesn’t stop Google storing your recordings, but it means they get kept with an anonymous identifier, and can’t be easily linked back to your account. If you want to stop Google recording your voice at all, well, there’s only one solution: stop talking to it.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010