Google will permanently disable a control on its new $50 speaker after the gadget listened in on some users

Google Home Mini is losing the ability to use it by touching the button on the top, after a reviewer raised concerns

google-will-permanently-disable-a-control-on-its-new-50-speaker-after-the-gadget-listened-in-on-some-users photo 1 Google

Google is permanently disabling a feature on the forthcoming Google Home Mini smart speaker, after a reviewer discovered that it was surreptitiously recording his conversations without his knowledge or consent. 

The issue, says Google, was that the button on top of the device was faulty and would sometimes activate on its own. In response, Google acknowledged that this bug affected a small number of units, and issued a software update that would disable that button entirely, for all users, while it explored a long-term fix.

Now, that change will be permanent.

This entire episode is an embarassing for Google, as it grapples with Apple and Amazon to conquer the small, but growing, market for AI-powered voice assistants. 

Here's Google's statement:

"We take user privacy and product quality concerns very seriously. Although we only received a few reports ofthis issue, we want people to have complete peace of mind while using Google Home Mini.

We have made the decision to permanently remove all top touch functionality on the Google Home Mini. As before, the best way to control and activate Google Home Mini is through voice, by saying 'Ok Google' or 'Hey Google,' which is already how most people engage with our Google Home products. You can still adjust the volume by using the touch control on the side of the device." 

What happened

Google unveiled the $50 Mini, which goes on sale on October 19, at its event last Wednesday. Soon after, Android Police's Artem Russakovskii, who was one of the reporters who received a test unit, discovered that his device was turning on by itself, recording his conversations, and uploading them to Google. 

Normally, there are two ways to interact with Google's smart speakers, including the Mini. You can say the words "OK Google," followed by a command such as "play 'Bohemian Rhapsody.'" Alternatively, you can press the button located on the top of the devices instead of saying "OK Google." 

But Russakovskii discovered that his Mini was listening in on him even when he hadn't pressed the device's button or said, "OK Google." When he checked his personal activity page on Google, the site that shows users' interactions with the search giant's services and the data it collects on users, he found sound files that had been uploaded to Google's servers from the Mini without his consent.

google-will-permanently-disable-a-control-on-its-new-50-speaker-after-the-gadget-listened-in-on-some-users photo 2 Google Home Mini Matt Weinberger/Business Insider

Google blamed the glitch on a faulty button in some of the units. The buttons on those Minis were detecting touches even when there was no touch to detect. Russakovskii apparently got one of the defective devices.  

On October 7th, three days after it handed out the Mini review units, Google rolled out a software update that disables the button. The change affects every Mini it's handed out, even those that weren't malfunctioning. Meanwhile, the company says it's deleted all the data recorded from alleged button pushes on the Mini review units — whether they were actual button pushes or not — from the time it handed out the devices to reviewers until it issued the update. 

Ultimately, the problem appears to be a simple error, not a malicious act of spying. And yet, the glitch could both hamper sales of the device, as well as undermine trust in Google — trust that's at a premium, as Google and Amazon both work to convince consumers to let them place microphones in their homes.

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