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Google Assistant updates seek to calm privacy concerns over human review

Changes include a requirement that users opt in for reviews of their voice recordings, as well as improvements on accidental triggerings of Assistant.

Google Assistant has a spot in a number of devices, including the Google Home smart speaker.
Chris Monroe/CNET

Google will make changes to its Assistant and be more transparent in the future regarding its review of voice recordings. This move follows a backlash after the company confirmed in July that contractors were listening to users' recorded audio to help improve the voice-activated virtual assistant's capabilities.

The company laid out changes coming to Assistant in a blog post Monday and clarified when audio is stored. Assistant users will now need to confirm that they want to be part of the Voice & Audio Activity (VAA) process, which stores and reviews conversations. "We're updating our settings to highlight that when you turn on VAA, human reviewers may listen to your audio snippets to help improve speech technology," Google said in the blog post. "If you're an existing Assistant user, you'll have the option to review your VAA setting and confirm your preference before any human review process resumes."

This setting is off by default for devices using Assistant, the company said. 

Google is also trying to reduce the number of times Assistant will automatically start in error, which is when the feature is triggered by noises instead of someone actually saying "Hey Google."

One thing omitted from the list of policy changes was when exactly Google will allow workers to once again review audio. The search engine in August suspended its human review process to assess how it handles audio recordings. Amazon and Apple, which also used human reviewers for their digital assistants, made similar moves. 

Google said when the review process returns, there will be additional security protection and additional privacy filters. Google didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Assistant is found in a number of devices including mobile phones, smart speakers, smart displays, cars, televisions, laptops and wearables.