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Judge gives go-ahead to Google Assistant privacy suit

The lawsuit accuses the tech giant of using people's conversations to target ads -- even when they don't know Google Assistant is listening.

Google Assistant can sometimes be triggered by accident. 
Juan Garzon/CNET

A federal judge in California issued an order Thursday saying Google must face a proposed class-action lawsuit related to privacy concerns about its digital assistant. The lawsuit, filed in the US District Court for the Northern District of California, accuses Google of recording certain users' conversations and then analyzing the recordings to target advertising, despite the users having activated Google Assistant unintentionally.

The case stems from so-called false accepts. If you say a "hot word" -- for example, "Hey, Google" or "OK, Google" -- near a device that has Google Assistant enabled, the digital assistant will listen and respond to whatever you say next. But sometimes Google Assistant's hearing is faulty. It can mistakenly think you said one of those trigger phrases, and it'll start listening to you even though you didn't ask it to.

The seven plaintiffs in the suit, each of whom owned devices such as a Google Home, Samsung Galaxy Tab or Google Pixel, allege that once Google figures out you didn't mean to trigger Assistant, it still uses the contents of your private conversations to customize ads. 

In a 37-page decision Thursday, Judge Beth Freeman denied Google's motion to dismiss the suit. The company had argued that its privacy policy entitled it to use information it recorded even after a false accept. But the judge said device owners were unlikely to have interpreted the policy that way. 

"While Google's Privacy Policy does disclose that it will collect and use information for targeted advertising, it does not sufficiently apprise users that it will use recordings made in the absence of manual activation or a hot word utterance," Freeman wrote.

In a statement on Friday, Google didn't directly address the lawsuit but stressed that it doesn't retain Google Assistant audio recordings by default. 

"Google Assistant is built to keep your information safe, private, and secure," said a Google spokesperson. "By default, we don't retain your audio recordings and make it easy to manage your privacy preferences, with things like simple answers to your privacy questions or enabling Guest Mode."

While Guest Mode is activated, Google "automatically deletes audio recordings and Google Assistant activity from the device owner's account," according to a support page.  

The judge is allowing plaintiffs to pursue some breach of contract claims, along with claims that Google violated some California and federal privacy laws. The judge dismissed the plaintiffs' California consumer protection claims, though they may be amended and refiled. 

Lawyers for the plaintiffs didn't respond to a request for comment. 

See also: 6 new Google Assistant features, and how to use them