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Google is listening to your most intimate moments without your knowledge - an interview with Tim Verheyden.

Tim Verheyden's revelation that Google employees are listening to you shows why we need a free press and why we need to keep fighting for Press Freedom.

2020-05-03
On Press Freedom Day we have interviewed Tim Verheyden, the journalist who broke the story that not just the machine but also Google employees are listening when we talk to devices like Google Home. The analysis of our voices by Google might be acceptable to some, but listening in on our most intimate moments without our knowledge is a privacy violation that many did not expect. Thanks to the free press, Tim could uncover a problem with Silicon Valley subcontractors that transcends Google.

Hey, Google, are you listening?

Have you used Google via its audio instructions? While it can be quite handy, Tim Verheyden revealed that it was not just a machine listening to you. Tim explains why this is a privacy violation, how he got hold of the story and why the growing number of "ghost workers" in and around Silicon Valley is becoming a big issue in Tech.

Tim, you have broken an interesting story on VRT News about how employees of Google subcontractors are listening to our conversations when using devices such as Google Home. What was the privacy violation in that story?

Google provides a range of information on privacy — and data gathering. In this particular case, Google says that it can save your audio recordings to learn the sound of your voice, learn how you say phrases and words, recognize when you say "Ok Google" to improve speech recognition. Google does not speak about the human interaction in the chain of training the AI on speech recognition. For some experts, this is a violation of the GDPR law.

How did the employee of the Google subcontractor who leaked the story get in touch with you?

By email, he shared his thoughts on an article we wrote about Alexa (Amazon) after Bloomberg broke the news about humans listening.

On Press Freedom Day last year Tutanota launched Secure Connect. You were among the first journalists who applied for the software donation. Why do you need Secure Connect?

I hope Secure Connect will encourage people with a story to get in contact. It does not always need to be a whitsleblower story. Because of security concerns — and other reasons — people are sometimes reluctant to contact a journalist. I hope Secure Connect will help build trust in relationships with journalists.

More and more journalists are offering Secure Connect so that whistleblowers can drop important information or get in touch with investigative journalists confidentially. Why do you believe a secure communication channel is important?

Secure communication through other channels than, for example, regular emailing, is becoming increasingly important since we are reading so many stories on open backdoors in massively used applications to communicate. Despite security measurements, third parties find their way to hack into communication channels; big companies are not always that trustworthy when it comes to sharing data, and so on. I honestly believe that Big Tech is not always as evil as described, but there are too many cases and examples that are raising eyebrows. Using the mainstream internet should not be equal to giving all your data away.

In general, how do our societies appreciate whistleblowers?

When it comes to tech, people don't always realize how important whisteblowers are. Technology is crucial for the future, but we are now experiencing a recession when it comes to trust in Big Tech. That's a shame, because in its core, technology is so great. Besides that, data is so abstract, people do not always realize the importance of working on the purity of technology today, so we can use it in the future, and our data and everything we are and have online is secure and safe.

The audio snippets the whistleblower provided contained, in parts, very sensitive information. What should Google do differently to protect users' privacy?

Google already takes measurements like securing the accounts the snippets are coming from. But the issue transcends Google. Thousands of so called "ghost workers" are doing tasks for so many tech companies in and around Silicon Valley and all over the world. Like content moderators for Facebook, for example. Who is controlling these subcontractors? What are the guidelines? What about working conditions? This is relatively new work that asks for more transparency since these companies are working with our data.

As an investigative journalist, you probably know how to protect your data. Do you have any recommendations for people who want to protect their privacy online?

Honestly, I could use some tips too. I'm a journalist, not a tech wizard, focusing on the influence from technology on all of us. Don't ask me anything about open source, etc. :)

Key points are the following: For sensitive documents, I back up on a hard disk. Mailing, I do through encrypted email like Tutanota. Browsing is incognito. And I have a few more tips I can't tell here because it concerns social media, but that is a good start. You guys should give me tips!

Well, we have collected a guide on how to leave Google with lots of useful alternatives to mainstream service, but I'm sure our users will also share their tips!

Thank you, Tim, for the interview.

Tim Verheyden's revelation that Google employees are listening to you shows why we need a free press and why we need to keep fighting for Press Freedom. To support Press Freedom, we are donating Secure Connect to journalists since its launch one year ago.

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