Carin and I have some pretty cool friends. Over the weekend, a couple of those pretty cool friends gave us a Google Home Mini for Christmas. Yes, Christmas. Yes, it was April last weekend. I know. The thing you all must realize is that the we don’t do anything on time around here philosophy that often sees us writing about things that everyone else saw months ago isn’t just a gimmicky site thing, it’s real life. That and it snowed a lot when us and those friends happened to be not busy at the same time, which also didn’t help.
But anyway, back to the Google Home Mini.
My first impression, which I think Carin would agree with, is that it’s pretty cool. I’ve enjoyed using it as a radio, flipping stations while I do dishes or what have you just by saying “Hey Google, play station name/frequency/call letters.” It’s also handy for controlling Spotify or getting news on demand, which like radio are things I enjoy messing with while I’m doing housework. All of this is nice because it means that I don’t have to drop what I’m doing to wash and dry my hands every time I want to do something so as not to slop shit all over my electronics, a small task that never bothered me much until this week when it dawned on me that I no longer have to do it.
There’s loads of other stuff it can do too, much of which we’re still scratching the surface of. The games are going to be fun when people are over, and I did one of those Fitstar workouts, which was surprisingly intense for something that’s only seven minutes long with short breaks in it.
All of this, combined with plenty of other handy and silly things we’ve tried or have yet to discover, makes it a nice little addition to the house. But with that said, it’s still kind of weird letting a corporate machine into our home and giving it access to our voices and lives. How much is it hearing? How much is it storing? How much is it sending back to the mothership? They say it’s not recording everything, but if that’s true, how does it know when I say “ok Google”?
These are all questions Carin and I asked even before we had one, and now that we do, they’ve become much more important. Thankfully there are answers, at least to the most pressing one.
The way that the Google Assistant devices work is by actively listening for a “hotword” or specific phrase — by default, this is usually set to “OK, Google” or “Hey Google”. This is why, when you first set up the Google Assistant, it’ll ask you to say these hotwords aloud – so that it has a locally-stored audio sample to match recordings against.
In theory, this trigger phrase acts as a key that unlocks the recording function of the device. Once heard, the device then records a few seconds of audio, sends it to the cloud, analyses it and then delivers the server’s response to the user.
Google say as much in their own online FAQ about Google Home. According to them, “Google Home listens in short (a few seconds) snippets for the hotword. Those snippets are deleted if the hotword is not detected, and none of that information leaves your device until the hotword is heard.”
“When Google Home detects that you’ve said “Ok Google” or that you’ve physically long pressed the top of your Google Home device, the LEDs on top of the device light up to tell you that recording is happening; Google Home records what you say, and sends that recording (including the few-second hotword recording) to Google in order to fulfill your request.”
So while your Google-powered smart speaker is constantly listening to you, it stores that ‘ambient’ data locally and is constantly overwriting it once it fails to detect the any wake words.
As for the recordings that the device makes whenever it does detect those wake words, these are stored – and accessible to you – via the Google Home app. Using the app, you can listen back to audio recordings of any ‘interaction’ you’ve ever had the Google Home. If that makes you a little uneasy, it should.
Thankfully, Google insists that you can delete those recordings through the My Activity section of the app anytime. You can also disable the online storage of these recordings, though Google have indicated that this will more-or-less prevent you from getting the full smart-speaker experience — as it prevents the Assistant from learning from your interests and behaviors.
It’s not impossible that this data could be backed up in some form by Google elsewhere, but given this disclaimer it seems improbable.
Google also note that “when you delete items from My Activity, they are permanently deleted from your Google Account. However, Google may keep service-related information about your account, like which Google products you used and when to prevent spam and abuse and to improve our services.”
There’s a lot in that article that makes these smart speakers sound like a mixed bag, which is exactly what they are. But now that we have one, I’m going to use it. Maybe not to build my entire life around, but as another tool for fun, convenience and information. Is there risk? Sure. But there’s risk to everything. The computer I’m writing this on could be one undisclosed security flaw away from ruining me. Ditto the iPhone right next to it. Hell, somebody could be breaking into the dead tree mailbox down in the lobby right now and assuming our identities. Life is risky. Sometimes that risk is unavoidable, and sometimes it’s manageable. The best any of us can do, Google Home Mini owner or not, is manage what we can and hope that good fortune will help us out with the rest.