Google disables Home Mini functionality to prevent random 24-7 recording

Update: Google has taken the somewhat controversial step of permanently removing the ‘tap to talk’ feature of the Google Home Mini to avoid the bug.  “We made this decision to avoid any confusion and give you complete peace of mind while using your Mini,” the company wrote. “The update will be completely rolled out by end of day October 15, 2017.”

It’s not clear whether Google decided to cut the feature because it couldn’t find a way to fix it or simply because it didn’t want the issue to run and run, and become a PR nightmare. In any case, from now on tapping the device will do nothing, and you’ll have to chat to it to get its attention.

Tom’s original piece explaining the bug continues below

Google has been forced to redress its upcoming Home Mini devices, after a pre-release unit broke its bounds and started recording what was happening in a bathroom 24-hours a day.

Artem Russakovskii, founder of Android Police, lays it all bare on his site; explaining that he’d received the Google Home Mini as part of a press kit. Because his rooms are already laden with other Google Home and Amazon Echo speakers, he decided to plonk the Home Mini in his bathroom. So far so good, except – as he only discovered days later – the Mini was recording “thousands of times a day” and sending those recordings to Google.

Russakovskii swapped the device with Google, whose engineers determined that the device was registering “phantom” touches. To interact with the Home Mini, you can either say “OK Google” or tap the top of its touch-sensitive surface. The device essentially thought it was being touched when it wasn’t, and therefore kept activating itself.

If you’re unsure why a self-activating Home Mini meant Russakovskii’s bathroom activity was recorded: everything you say to Google Assistant across the company’s devices is recorded and stored in Google’s servers, unless you explicitly disable it in My Activity controls. Doing so will, however, affect the accuracy of the device’s voice recognition.

Google responded to the “phantom” touch issue quickly, totally removing “long-press to talk” functionality from all active Home Mini devices. The company says on a support page that it also “removed any activity/queries that were created by long pressing the top of a Google Home Mini between October 4 and October 7”.

Preventing “long-press to talk” on all Mini devices is a short-term solution, but it seems to have come swiftly from Google. The device isn’t due for launch until 19 October, so the company has a few days to find a permanent solution, or potentially push back its launch date. It’s a good thing this issue was uncovered before the home hubs went on general sale, but does perhaps raise wider concerns around the potential for recording devices in our homes to malfunction, and capture information we may not be happy with sharing.

All of this is also interesting when you consider the growing trend of smart speakers being used in court cases. A recent murder trial in the US, for example, made use of data pulled from an Amazon Echo. If a Home or an Echo can go on the fritz and start recording 24-7, could it also be tampered with to do the same intentionally, or could its recordings be edited to provide misinformation?

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