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Google Listening Software Installed on Computers Without Consent

Eric Pheterson / CC BY 2.0

Google has been installing listening software on users’ computers without permission via its Chromium browser.

On the website Privacy Online News, Pirate Party founder Rick Falkvinge claims that Google has been able to listen to audio through a “black box” of code.

For a company whose governing motto has been “Don’t be evil,” this move seems to confirm some of the worst fears of privacy and Internet rights activists.

As the Guardian explains:

[The software] was designed to support Chrome’s new “OK, Google” hotword detection – which makes the computer respond when you talk to it – but was installed, and, some users have claimed, it is activated on computers without their permission.

“Without consent, Google’s code had downloaded a black box of code that – according to itself – had turned on the microphone and was actively listening to your room,” said Rick Falkvinge, the Pirate party founder, in a blog post. “Which means that your computer had been stealth configured to send what was being said in your room to somebody else, to a private company in another country, without your consent or knowledge, an audio transmission triggered by … an unknown and unverifiable set of conditions.”

The feature is installed by default as part of Google’s Chrome browser. But open source advocates are up in arms about it also being installed with the open source variant Chromium, because the listening code is considered to be “black box”, not part of the open source audit process.

“We don’t know and can’t know what this black box does,” said Falkvinge.

Google responded to complaints via its developer boards. It said: “While we do download the hotword module on startup, we do not activate it unless you opt in to hotwording.”

However, reports from developers indicate otherwise.

After having identified Chromium as the culprit, developer Ofer Zelig said in a blog post: “While I was working I thought ‘I’m noticing that an LED goes on and off, on the corner of my eyesight [webcam]’. And after a few times when it just seemed weird, I sat to watch for it and saw it happening. Every few seconds or so.”

Read the rest here.

–Posted by Roisin Davis

Roisin Davis
Róisín Davis is a literary agent, writer, and editor based in New…
Roisin Davis

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