"Google Assistant" Experienced Users Here On Forteana Forum: We Need To Talk

Ermintruder

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#1
I was sure I'd previously-posted here on The Forum about my first (fairly-recent) experiences with my 'Google Home Assistant Mini' (for clarity, I mean by this the badged-and-inhabited-by-Google physical smart speaker, independantly-connected to the internet, interacted with primarily via spoken commands/queries (between me/family, and the pseudopersonifed Google Search Engine).

For those unfamiliar with these little smart speakers, a Google Home Mini looks and feels like a squashed tennis ball wrapped in pastel-coloured felt, crossed with an 1980s Apple mouse, topped-off with four soft illustrative winking colourable LEDs.

Other smart speakers are available (eg Amazon Alexa, Echodot &c et cet)
2019-09-10 23.45.44.png

But I need to speak here, on our forum, specifically, to some relatively-experienced and knowledgeable users of the Google Home Assistant service.

I've discovered (or THINK I've uncovered) a worrying aspect relating to how the system can operate. There are complex aspects of the system setup & permutations in each users' configuration that stop me from crying "foul!" too loudly. So I need some more experiential information, informed opinion and savvy perspectives (rabid speculation and false corollary can come in later, downthread)

But: I'm fairly-convinced that I've discovered my overall Google Assistant service doing something intrinsically-naughty. Very naughty, in fact. And I've accidently proven to myself (already) to a very-high standard of proof that I'm right in my suspicions.

Therefore; please: I'd ask for forum members who fit the following criteria to contribute to this thread (initially at least)

  • Users of physical Google Home Assistant or Google Home Assistant Mini, or Google Assistant smart speakers (hardware-embedded instances)
  • Users with a reasonable amount of experience in using the overall system (although the testimony of newbies is also going to be useful)
  • Users who are administering their home (or indeed perhaps even work) instances of Google Home Assistant via their Android phones or tablet computers. Users who are doing this via Apple devices (or maybe even via Windows-based personal computers) are less of a priority at present, for valid discriminatory reasons.
I have (I think) uncovered something either odd or nasty. Or both.

More explanatory exposition will follow, and, before I reveal my key evidential production in this inquiry....but I do need first a small circle of forum correspondants, because I need to be properly-challenged in all of my assumptions and (mis?)understandings. Or I need at least a couple of other contributors...

(Apologies, Forteana Forum: this may get a bit semi-technically detailed, for which I apologise. But it needs to be done: hmm....I think?)
 
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IbisNibs

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#3
This isn't quite the same problem, but it is an example of how boundaries can be blurred using smart devices:
https://www.denverpost.com/2019/09/07/ask-amy-smart-home-turns-husband-into-big-brother/

I think that lately we're collectively examining our definitions of healthy boundaries and the ways we try to maintain them.
I wish you good progress in figuring out how to make your Google Rock, er, Assistant work best for you, Ermintruder!
 

Ermintruder

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#4
I wish you good progress in figuring out how to make your Google Rock, er, Assistant work best for you, Ermintruder!
Well, that is almost precisely the problem. There is something very-odd going on with my Google Assistant operation. I don't mean in some vague imaginary way, I'm talking about specifics which I can and will detail.

But I need either a Google Assistant fellow-user to compare settings & experiences with, or at least someone semi-technical who can competently-challenge my conclusions.

Are you being coy, Forteana Forum? I find it unlikely that nobody else in our membership is appropriately-provisioned....
 
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Krepostnoi

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#5
I find it unlikely that nobody else in our membership is appropriately-provisioned....
Do you? I'd imagine that many of us consider appropriate provision to be that of our friend here: :tfoil:

I'm quite keen on what technology can offer us - I am a convert to the value of smart watches, for example (having my pebble show me turn-by-turn directions on my wrist while I'm navigating my bike through Saigon is priceless). But an always-listening voice-operated smart assistant has always seemed like several steps too far, even for my technophile self.
 

Kingsize Wombat

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#7
I just have voice activation on my Google Android phone. But I noticed something odd recently. The targeted ads I usually get are normally related to the sort of stuff I buy online. No surprise there.

But a few weeks ago, I randomly spoke to my ex wife on the phone about retirement funding. Lo and behold, my targeted ads changed to retirement funds for a few days.

Then I was speaking to a person (not on the phone, merely with the phone in my pocket) about a particular Rugby team. A different one to my favorite team. And guess what? The news stream on my phone then changed for a few days to the other team!

Are they listening? Well yeah, I guess.

If you put one of these devices into your home, you can kiss privacy goodbye.
 

Ermintruder

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#8
unlikely that nobody else in our membership is appropriately-provisioned....
I meant
'possessed of the technology itself, and, possessed of the personal human critical faculties to be able to analyse exactly what the damn thing is doing'


I'm not sure this is a good place to be seeking Google Assistant knowledge, experience and / or advice.
Dear @EnolaGaia ....we must never forget that this board is assuredly something more than just the sum of its parts. I read your and @Krepostnoi 's comment at 0410hrs UK local time, and reluctantly wondered if this was, indeed the case.

But as I did so (awoken by I know not what....perhaps the full moon outside, or the will of the wires that write their pencil shadows upon the floor of my broken night) ....only to see @Kingsize Wombat typing, real-time, a perfectly-relevant set of experiences in the context of what I'm referring to. In other words, the Forum (as ever) comes to the aid of its creature citizenry:

But I noticed something odd recently
As have I.....

have voice activation on my Google Android phone
As have I.... because, as with all stage magic and conjouring, see the distractions for the 'wow', but watch the actions for the 'how'.

These Google Home Assistant Minis....my can be sitting in your house, and they can be made deaf, via the simple expedient of turning-off the microphone. Or (and it doesn't get better than this) completely-unplugged from power and the internetwork. But it doesn't matter....because the user's own phone appears STILL to be picking-up comments, via the software version of Google Assistant.

And I DON'T mean just during phonecalls...I mean potentially all the time (just a quick pause for recalibration of context/competence&capacity, here. This is not the rabid ramblings of some random reporter: I mean what I am saying and am attempting to say what I mean).

Then I was speaking to a person (not on the phone, merely with the phone in my pocket) about a particular Rugby team
Thank you! Thanks VERY much. This is precisely what I've noticed, beyond any doubt.

In my case, my 'sample charge' is even-more damningly-specific. I've been saying, recently, to a number of friends (with my phone inevitably in my pocket) "You know, I've often wondered exactly what a Logan MCV is....what exactly is an MCV?" (it is some precise type of Dacia motorcar), but I have:

  • never searched online for info about it (of that I'm certain);
  • never spoken about it during phonecalls or eg Facebook Messenger voicecalls (of that I'm certain) and (finally);
  • I have NEVER elected to enable voice activated Google Assistant on my smartphone (...that is what these damned felt-covered rocks are for)
But what is now happening? My smartphone is 'magically' sending me sales information about Dacia Logan MCV cars (and no, I STILL don't know what the letters "MCV" means, and have deliberately disavowed finding-out what it might stand for. If I ever read it in a printed paper or magazine, or am told by a real person, then I shall know).

It has done this by listening to (or hearing?) ambient conversations....my phone, not my smart-speaker. But it has done so, presumably because I/we need to use our smartphones to initially-administer these Google Home Assistant appliances.

The action of so doing appears to permanently-activate an element of code within the Joe Public Android smartphone, wherein it seems (perhaps randomly or always) to listen to everything...or hear somethings that are repeated (this is my considered best-bet as to what it's doing). But it is doing so unbidden and unbounded.


If you put one of these devices into your home, you can kiss privacy goodbye
Yes....but as you've corroborated, it's your trusted phone that's doing the omnipresent ambient listening in your Personal Area, not (just) the overtly-tasked tied-to-a-room smartspeaker.

We can't do without our phones. Or tablets. Or computers. At all.

Did you know that every new domestic computer monitor screen has an integrated microphone? As well as that little sometimes-blinkered minicamera cyclopsed at the top of the screen. And that HDMI video cables (PC-to-monitor) also pass both-way audio permanently?

The technology is inescapable and interwoven into our society, and will only become even more so. We need to think properly how to constructively engage with this.

Or at the very least, be accurately aware of the actual interfaces that are intrinsically around us.
 
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EnolaGaia

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#9
It seems pretty obvious your phone-based Assistant - once synched with the Home Assistant - is acting as a remote input device, and it's always listening upon detecting your voice.

Rummage around in your phone preferences for a way to disable voice activation / listening when the phone is not actively in use.
 

IbisNibs

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#10
Logan MCV - I searched so you wouldn't have to Ermintruder!
"The Dacia Logan MCV once again raises eyebrows for its pricing structure. You get a lot of car for your money. The Logan MCV - that acronym stands for maximum capacity vehicle - sits on the same platform as the Sandero (as do all Dacias), but it is stretched by 430mm."

With any luck, you won't now start receiving ad/advert material in your Forteana Forum alerts!

And here are a couple of informative pieces regarding the intrusive nature of Google's voice activated devices:
https://www.consumerwatchdog.org/privacy-technology/how-google-and-amazon-are-spying-you
https://www.digitaltrends.com/mobile/how-to-turn-off-google-assistant/

I don't know if these links will be helpful. There are tons of articles on how to make it unnecessary to unlock a phone that is connected to Google Assistant, but not much on how to keep your phone from blabbing to Google Assistant at every opportunity it can get.
 

Yithian

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#11
I heard a chap on YouTube say the other day that he has no privacy concerns with Alexa and his voice-operated phone because he can simply tell them to deactivate themselves when he doesn't want them to listen, and then call them to turn themselves on again.

Yes, YouTube, I know.

I have no Alexa and my 'assistant' (some idiot called Bixby) is permanently off (I hope).

But how do they 'hear' your command to turn on if they aren't already 'listening'?
 

Min Bannister

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#12
I heard a chap on YouTube say the other day that he has no privacy concerns with Alexa and his voice-operated phone because he can simply tell them to deactivate themselves when he doesn't want them to listen, and then call them to turn themselves on again.
Oh sure.

I have a Kindle Fire on which I have never used Alexa and yet when I go into Settings, each time I find that the Alexa app is full of data (which I obviously delete). Unpleasant.

The creepiest thing it has done though is to start playing me adverts for a bus route that I had just been on. I think it must have taken some sort of electronic signal from the bus as it lay in standby in my bag.
 
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#13
Simple rule - if you use voice activated devices, they are 'listening' at all times. Otherwise they don't work.

It's easy to switch it off completely (on an Android phone, at least), and if you haven't you can listen to all your recorded conversations and delete what you want. https://www.itproportal.com/guides/how-to-turn-off-ok-google-android-voice-search/

I'm not particularly concerned with apps and sites tracking my online activity, but I draw the line at something monitoring my conversations.

We've had to implement rules at work about personal devices being allowed in meetings, as it was pointed out that anyone that used voice activation on their devices was inadvertently recording confidential information and potentially sharing with Google or Apple.
 

Mythopoeika

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#15
Are you being coy, Forteana Forum? I find it unlikely that nobody else in our membership is appropriately-provisioned....
I think quite a few of us have decided not to have an electronic spy in our houses.
That's the extent of my knowledge about these devices, sorry.
 

Analogue Boy

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#18
I read the OP and my immediate reaction was ‘If you’re thinking it is spying on you.... it is’.
Why you’d invite a thing in your home that’s monitoring everything it can in its power to sell you something is beyond me.

I was waiting for some new revelation but apparently, it’s just doing what it’s meant to do. Intercept conversation and web searches and recommend stuff you really need to buy.
 

INT21

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#22
Quietly smiling to myself having read this thread.

One of the first things mentioned in the book '1984' is that the tv in Winston's room can be turned down, but can not be turned off. And it monitors all the time.

I would never have such a device in my home.

I did have a problem with my internet banking tonight.

It wouldn't let me log in. Kept asking for a passcode.

I inquired of the bank what was going on, and was informed that it was an extra layer of security, and the passcode would be sent to my cellphone. I pointed out that the bank does not have my cellphone number, and only five people in the world have it. I would like to keep it that way.

It's a Blackberry. Don't know if they are susceptible to these problems.

So they are sending out a 'token', I understand this is used to generate passcodes for internet banking use.

We'll see how it goes.

Big Brother is definitely here.

As for 'how does Alexa know how to switch back on'. It probably isn't completely off. just waiting for a keyword. If you avoid the keyword it shouldn't react to anything else.

INT21.
 
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Ermintruder

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#27
your phone-based Assistant - once synched with the Home Assistant - is acting as a remote input device
Nearly....it's worse than that, though.

The key point to take here is that my smartphone's acting as an independant input device, with a seperate (apparently-irrepressable) software instance of Google Assistant on a device which is being thought of as being just an administration/control tool rather than a voice conduit.

Let me put this another, simpler, way. All hardware smart-speakers appear to be fitted with a physical microphone mute switch. Conversely, no smartphones are similarly-equipped. So you're looking at your smart-speaker, thinking you've 'turned its ears off'....which you have, but entirely irrelevantly-so. Because there's a completely-seperate audio path via another independant Google Assistant instance, in your pocket.


Rummage around in your phone preferences for a way to disable voice activation / listening when the phone is not actively in use
It's easy to switch it off completely (on an Android phone, at least)
This is NOT nearly as straightforward as it sounds (if it were, this thread wouldn't have been opened). The settings options vary between apparently-identical models smartphones with what would be expected to be the same software.

I suspect (no, hope, in my case) that what may be happening for users of some smartphones is that the exact combination of application software as installed is causing unwanted permissive effects. For example, my Samsung phone already had an application on it from new called "S Voice", and I am not sure I can safely remove that unused app....but it may be relevantly interfering with this effect.

Also (something anyone with a smartphone will relate to) there are numerous graphically-represented faders & level controls designed into the GUI for eg audio settings.

These attempt to make life simple for users of mobile devices, but in practise they all tend to blur the boundaries between what can be: 'Media Volume'/'Ringtone Volume'/'Source Volume'/'Audio Level'. I bet everyone here with a smartphone of any flavour has had occasional challenges in getting (and keeping) these controls set.

Another Achilles heel on smartphones is (I strongly suspect) the soft button that's intended to mute/unmute the smartphone's microphone *during phonecalls*. I am convinced that either clumsy coding (or application compatibility/conflict) means that sometimes the action of toggling the phone's mute-button to 'unmute' can reenable the local ambient audio pickup within a speech-to-text Google Assistant type of search app.

(I also do wonder whether the universal utility within smartphones to be able to 'cast' media content to localised smart-speakers via either Bluetooth or Wifi local loop is another unwitting conduit via which ambient live speech is being either occasionally routed, or, accidently enabled.

Similarly, if you ever use your smartphone to make voicecalls via eg Facebook Messenger, or other toll-free "wifi call apps" such as Zoiper, since this enables two-way audio path operation outwith the context of conventional mobile phonecalls, the action of so doing may collaterally-reactivate previously-disabled audio settings).


I think quite a few of us have decided not to have an electronic spy in our houses
I read the OP and my immediate reaction was ‘If you’re thinking it is spying on you.... it is’.
Why you’d invite a thing in your home that’s monitoring everything
@Mythopoeika / @Analogue Boy - please re-read my rambling-but-consistent tale above.

I am trying to emphasise that the conduit for this unconsented accidental broadcast of intimate personal trivia (or corporate intel) is NOT necessarily one of these overt Google Assistant/Alexa smart-speaker 'upholstered rocks' that you've (perhaps justifiably) decided to exclude from your home.

I'm saying that the tenant in your household which may now be impassively-transducting your harmless daily prose could well just be your phone, your laptop, desktop or tablet computers.

Unless you've just got a silver Nokia brick from circa 2004, and still a WindowsXP door-stopper, there is a tangible technical potential for the contemporary replacements for these classic originals to be reporting your every creak and croak.

I'm not proposing paranoia. Or the Luddite flushing of phones and speakers down the toilet. Because the technology is omnipresent and useful. But we do need to be given proper handles for this, by technologists....that work.
 
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Ermintruder

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#28
Logan MCV - I searched so you wouldn't have to Ermintruder!
@IbisNibs - many thanks, you're too kind! At last I know...

Forteana Forum Folk: might you wish to consider taking part a little personal-but-collective experiment? This may be initially difficult for each of us to do, but try thinking of a previously-unresearched, or hitherto-unpurchased strangesomethingorother.

Ideally not an incantation that will cause too many people to stare at you in stunned disgust (but, hey, we're meant to be slightly-unconventional, here....you knew what you were signing-up for, back when we caught you).

And say your strangesomethingorother several times, out loud, to the personal bubble of the universe that you inhabit.

To see whether or not you can supratechnically (as opposed to supernaturally) elicit a marketing or other mediated message of an ideopathic and unexplicitly-expected nature from your personal technology portfolio.

(If I've maybe just invented electromancy, or I-Tarot, then I claim full IPR, but only if it all has a happy ending....oh, perhaps I like the sound of "I-Scry". Somebody give me Steve Jobs' phone-number.....(sorry, maybe it's too soon))
 
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Mythopoeika

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#29
I'm saying that the tenant in your household which may now be impassively-transducting your harmless daily prose could well just be your phone, your laptop, desktop or tablet computers.

Unless you've just got a silver Nokia brick from circa 2004, and still a WindowsXP door-stopper, there is a tangible technical potential for the contemporary replacements for these classic originals to be reporting your every creak and croak.
My phone is an old banger. It's not really what you'd call a smartphone. It uses an old Sony Ericsson operating system and isn't Internet-linked. It also has no GPS. I leave it turned off when I don't need it.
The laptops are a different issue, yes. I have turned off as much junk as I can and have stuck a piece of paper across the camera. The microphones... well, I do need them occasionally, so they're still on. But I guess I could dismantle the laptops and break a wire to stop the mike working in each one. I have a separate, plug-in mike for those occasions when I need it. However, that's a load of palaver, considering that I rarely talk when using the laptops.
 

Shady

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#30
I have ad block on pooter, and i don't use my phone for the internet, strictly calls and texts, never seen ads, I also put tape and cardboard over camera on pooter, as for the microphones, gawd knows how they work. I also get a lot of, google is using your camera, and such and such is using your camera, all names i know and i thinking, why the feck are you using my camera, ok, good luck seeing thro the cardboard
 
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