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Judge Dismisses Most of Lawsuit Claiming Google Assistant Violated Privacy

A federal judge has dismissed the majority of a class-action complaint against Google alleging that Google Assistant illegally collected and shared private information. The decision is only a partial win for the tech giant after it petitioned for the entire lawsuit to be tossed, but does narrow the path to victory for the plaintiffs.

Privacy Protection Problem

U.S. District Judge Beth Labson Freeman in San Jose published her written ruling this week on the case, filed by a group of Google Assistant device owners last summer. The lawsuit alleges that Google Assistant recorded conversations without their consent and that the company sharing snippets of those conversations with contractors violated privacy and other laws.  The audio is shared as part of Google’s effort to improve Google Assistant, according to the company. Google asked the judge to dismiss the whole complaint because the potential for sharing audio clips was covered in the privacy policy that all consumers have to agree to when setting up a Google Home smart speaker or other voice assistant-powered device.

The judge agreed that the claims by the plaintiffs that Google violated California consumer protection and federal wiretap laws didn’t work, but dismissed them without prejudice. That means the plaintiffs can come back with adjusted versions of the same claims. Judge Freeman noted in her ruling that Google’s confusing privacy policy, with the recording and sharing disclosures in two separate sections, makes it hard for people to figure out what might happen to recordings of their voice. The plaintiffs have until June 5 to revise their complaints.

Ongoing Changes

Google and other voice assistant developers have been making changes to their contractor programs and privacy settings at a rapid clip since the reports started emerging last summer. Google has been particularly keen to broadcast its updates as it tries to get people to trust its voice assistant. New features like voice commands for checking and deleting Google Assistant recordings are heavily promoted. Most recently, Google added a hotword sensitivity control to Google Assistant. The idea is to reduce accidental awakenings of the voice assistant, which can lead to the kind of recordings mentioned in the lawsuit. Since two-thirds of voice assistant users accidentally awaken a voice assistant at least once a month, it’s not a niche issue.

How much these changes will reduce suspicions and prevent future lawsuits is debatable. The final verdict of this case could shape voice assistant privacy rules and regulations in the years ahead, so Google’s rivals in the space are probably watching closely as they develop their own policies to protect user privacy.


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