Google Duplicitous?

It seems people have some questions about Google’s creepy human sounding AI assistant. Fortunately or perhaps unfortunately, these are questions that go beyond why are you trying to give us all nightmares from hell, Google?

As Axios noted Thursday morning, there was something a little off in the conversations the A.I. had on the phone with businesses, suggesting that perhaps Google had faked, or at least edited, its demo. Unlike a typical business (Axios called more than two dozen hair salons and restaurants), the employees who answered the phone in Google’s demos don’t identify the name of the business, or themselves. Nor is there any ambient noise in Google’s recordings, as one would expect in a hair salon or a restaurant. At no point in Google’s conversations with the businesses did the employees who answered the phone ask for the phone number or other contact information from the A.I. Further, California is a two-party consent state, meaning that both parties need to consent in order for a phone conversation to be legally recorded. Did Google seek the permission of these businesses before calling them for the purposes of the demo? Was it staged in the simulated manner of reality TV?
Google isn’t saying. When Axios reached out for comment to verify that the businesses existed, and that the calls weren’t set up in advance, a spokesperson declined to provide names of the establishments; when Axios asked if the calls were edited (even just to cut out the name of the business, to avoid unwanted attention), Google also declined to comment. The company did not immediately respond to a series of questions from the Hive.

Let me say right off the top that I’m glad people are asking questions. Right now and headed into the future, we need all the critical thinking we can get. But some of this stuff strikes me as being kind of nitpicky, and in one case just flat out wrong.

Let’s start with that one. No ambient noise? Ok, in the salon call there isn’t any, but in the restaurant one you can pretty clearly hear people jibbering in the background. I’ll hear your argument that it’s not as loud as maybe you would expect it to be, but it’s there. Part of that could be proximity of the phone to wherever those people are, but part of it I’m going to go ahead and blame on the somewhat poor quality of the recording.

As for the salon, maybe it was closed. Maybe it wasn’t busy. Maybe there’s an office with a door on it and a phone inside. Plenty of things can explain that away.

Did Google edit the calls? Of course they did. The way the calls are answered is completely unnatural. It sounds like the person picks up while their greeting is already in progress. It’s a pretty obvious edit for a pretty obvious reason. I’m sure they did the same thing if there was an exchange of contact information. Nobody wants an 867-5309 situation on their hands.

But what about two-party consent laws? Glad you asked.

Federal law and many state wiretapping statutes permit recording if one party (including you) to the phone call or conversation consents. Other states require that all parties to the communication consent.
Unfortunately, it is not always easy to tell which law applies to a communication, especially a phone call. For example, if you and the person you are recording are in different states, then it is difficult to say in advance whether federal or state law applies, and if state law applies which of the two (or more) relevant state laws will control the situation. Therefore, if you record a phone call with participants in more than one state, it is best to play it safe and get the consent of all parties. However, when you and the person you are recording are both located in the same state, then you can rely with greater certainty on the law of that state.

That’s simple enough to understand, and simple enough, I suspect, to get around. Do we know for certain that those calls were placed from and to California? Google has offices and employees all over the place, and salons and restaurants are even more all over the place than that. As long as these recordings don’t involve problem areas, this is a non-issue.

The way I look at this, Google being doubted is all Google’s fault. Why not answer the questions? Better yet, why not be up front about the sorts of processing you did on the recordings so that maybe questions won’t have to be asked in the first place? Saying that yes we edited some stuff for privacy reasons or even yes the businesses knew we were going to call them isn’t going to give away any proprietary information that could be swiped by a competitor. Nor is it going to make what it seems you’ve accomplished here any less impressive…or scary. Because holy hell is it ever scary.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.