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Belle Taylor: Privacy not the only concern with Google Home

It was 4am and all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even the toddler.

And then, suddenly, an almighty yelling shattered the early morning calm: THE MIC HAS BEEN TURNED ON … THE MIC HAS BEEN TURNED OFF … THE MIC HAS BEEN TURNED ON …

Reader, I freaked out.

No, Mick Jagger hadn’t broken into my house in the middle of the night to conduct a sound check, the Google Home was having a meltdown.

People worry about privacy concerns with smart-home systems, but no one has mentioned the absolute terror of hearing a disembodied voice screaming from your kitchen in the middle of the night when they malfunction.

The Bloke, however, is steadfast in his insistence that this small white speaker makes our lives easier.

“Hey, Google!” he will yell, standing next to the wall clock. “What’s the time?” Google’s little lights don’t flash. It remains silent.

Bloke: “Hey, Google! Google! OK Google! Google?”

Nothing.

Me: (looking at the clock) “It’s 7 o’clock.”

Bloke: (ignoring me) “Hey! Google!” The lights start flashing. “Oh good. Tell me the time!”

Google: “It is 7.03pm”

Bloke: “Thanks, Google. See Belle? So efficient.”

You couldn’t make this stuff up.

If you have never used a smart-home system before, they are basically speakers hooked up to the internet that you can speak to, activating it by saying its name. You can link various applications to them, a music-streaming service or your phone, for example, so instead of doing something cool, like putting on a record, you just stand in your living room screaming at a small speaker: “HEY! Google! Play With a Little Help From My Friends. No, not that one, the Joe Cocker version. No … JOE COCKER! Ugh. Hey! Google! Play Joe Cocker’s With a Little Help From My Friends! Yeah, that’s right. Hey! Google! Turn the volume up 20 per cent. TURN THE VOLUME UP. Hey! Goo … ugh. Forget it.” We knew the future wasn’t bright, but did it have to be so uncool?

We knew the future wasn’t bright, but did it have to be so uncool?

Google (the company, not my housemate), recently announced it was allowing 200,000 of its employees to work from home until next June, in what pundits are calling a “sobering assessment” of the pandemic’s staying power.

What I want to know is, if you work for Google and work from home, is Google Home an extension of your work computer? And could Google check on their employees’ home systems like they could a work computer search history?

“Who are we checking in on today, Dave?” Gary at Google HQ will say to his colleague, tapping a few numbers into a computer.

“Ahh, Jenny in finance is today’s target, Gary. Now let’s see here. At 8.30am, she asked Google to play a 30-minute exercise video, but she asked it to stop just three minutes in. What do you think that means, Dave?”

“Not sure Gary. Look here, she asked for the time 14 times throughout the day. Should we be concerned?”

“Hmm, possible short-term memory loss. Request a full medical. Speaking of concerning, look at her music requests: Taylor Swift, Fiona Apple and Liz Phair. That’s got to be diagnosable.”

“Absolutely. Mandatory counselling sessions ASAP. Also, at 2.16pm, she asked Google to read several different recipes for pudding to her. Is she eating too much unhealthy food?”

“No, because at 8.10pm she asked for the entire menu of Faith’s Health Cafe to be read to her.”

“Well, that seems promising?”

“Oh wait, at 8.16pm she called Chuck’s Burgers.”

“Oh. Mandatory completion of the Healthy Eating program will have to be done.”

“It’s for her own good. Let’s check on Larry next. I want to make sure he’s stopped cheating at the morning trivia. He’s on his final warning.”

Yep. It’s a brave new world. All I can say is: “Hey, Google: Turn yourself off at night, OK?”

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