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Google says its Home device listening for everyday home sounds was an ‘accident’

The listening feature was switched automatically.
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A Google Home user claimed, on Reddit, that he received a notification that his smoke alarm was going off. Google claimed that a recent update enabled its smart speakers listen to other sounds than the wake word.

“Google just made my dumb smoke detectors smart,” Brazedowl wrote on Reddit. “Pretty rad.”

Typically, Google Home devices only respond to the wake phrase, such as “Hey Google” or “OK Google.” But in this case, the device responded to a sound made by a smoke detector – meaning the speakers were actively listening for all sounds.

After Brazedowl’s post, other Reddit users reported receiving similar security notifications after breaking glass. Some alerts were false alarms to popped bubble wrap and other noises resembling the smoke alarm sound.

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The feature supposedly enhances security. In fact, considering that Google invested $450 million in home security company ADT, the feature doesn’t seem as accidental as they would want us to believe. Also, such notifications have been part of Google’s Nest Aware subscription since May.

“Your Nest speakers and displays will notify you if a critical sound is detected, like a smoke alarm or glass breaking, by sending an alert to the Home app,” Google wrote in a blog post announcing the new security feature. “From there, you can hear an audio clip or listen live within the Home app to confirm the alarm.”

Speaking to the tech blog Protocol, Google claimed that the feature was enabled on some Google Home users by accident through a recent update. The update has since been rolled back.

“A recent software update enabled these alerts on some of our speakers that didn’t have a subscription, but we’ve since rolled that back,” Google said. Could the company be planning to make the “critical sounds” feature available for free to all Google Home devices? And, if so – shouldn’t they inform users in advance that they’re going to turn it on?

However, to some users, the added security is not worth the privacy tradeoff. Obviously. Clearly, these smart speakers are actively listening to other sounds even though the company insists it only actively listens to ambient audio for the wake phrase.

It is also not the first time Google has raised eyebrows through home smart devices without the knowledge of users. In 2019, the company rolled out Nest Secure alarm systems with hidden microphones. The sinister addition was “erroneously” left out of the product features.

Amazon’s Alexa has a similar feature called Alexa Guard, which actively listens to suspicious sounds. However, Alexa Guard only starts actively listening after a user activates it.

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