Many Google users believe the company records audio through phones and computers, then applies those recordings to the AutoComplete options in Google Search.
I asked followers on Google+ about this and one wrote: “If me and my wife are talking about some random subject like how long turtles live, I’ll type ‘how’ and it will fill in ‘long do turtles live’ like it was listening. And I’m terrified and impressed.”
The anecdotal evidence is convincing. Some say AutoComplete is more than just specifically accurate, it’s personal. One commenter said his friend got an address over the phone from his wife. When he started to type that address into Google Maps, the app suggested the exactly correct address after he typed only the first number of the address.
Another flatly proclaimed: “the mic is always on listening mode.”
What’s going on here?
What Google actually records
Google is careful about when, where and how it records user audio. The only way for Google to end up with a recording of your conversations is for you to use one of its voice products, such as the Google app, Google Assistant in the Allo messaging app, Chrome browser, Pixel phone or Google Home appliance. You also have to take deliberate action. You have to press the microphone icon or say either “OK Google” or “Hey Google.”
Google applies voice-recognition software to your words, and uses those words to process your request or command.
Google retains a copy of the recordings to improve its software. The company is trying to be the opposite of sneaky. It provides a detailed history of every recording it has on the user’s “My Activity” web page.
Each recording or set of recordings is presented on its own card.
The recordings are listed by date and service (for example, “Assistant,” “Google App” or “google.com.” On the left you can see the text version of your command, which is a link that, when clicked on, takes you to Google Search results for those words. On the right you’ll find a “play” button, so you can listen to each recording. A “more options” menu on the top right of each card enables you to delete any recording.
It’s unlikely for a recording to happen by accident. From a phone, for example, the phone must be unlocked and the recording begun by specific user action, such as pressing the icon. On a Pixel phone, the user can set up automatic listing mode by changing the default in settings to enable the “Trusted Voice” setting. That makes the phone listen for the “OK Google” command.
The Google Home product also listens to the “OK Google” command.
So how can the uncanny AutoComplete options reported by some users be explained?