By Sarah E. Needleman


Google and Apple Inc. (AAPL) will temporarily stop listening to audio recordings of customers interacting with their virtual assistants, as regulators and media reports have raised privacy concerns associated with the technology.

German officials Thursday prohibited Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc. (GOOG), from using employees or contractors to listen to and transcribe customer voice recordings for three months while they conduct an investigation into the matter. Google, according to the Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information, agreed to suspend the practice across the European Union for at least three months.

"This is intended to provisionally protect the rights of privacy of data subjects for the time being," the German regulator said in a news release.

Google Assistant is available on the company's Google Home speakers and Android devices.

A Google representative said the company paused reviewing customers' audio before the German regulator required it to do so and that the suspension was made globally.

"Shortly after we learned about the leaking of confidential Dutch audio data, we paused language reviews of the Assistant to investigate," the representative said.

Apple said in a separate statement it would temporarily halt efforts to review customer audio from its virtual assistant Siri, a practice it calls "grading." However, as part of a future software update, the company will allow users to opt-out of conversation grading.

The company didn't provide a timeline for the suspension, which it said was voluntary and applies world-wide, or say what had prompted the decision. Siri is available on iOS devices such as the iPhone.

"We are committed to delivering a great Siri experience while protecting user privacy," the company said in a statement.

The suspensions come after Belgian public broadcaster VRT NWS in July claimed that Google's recordings potentially expose sensitive information about users. It further asserted that in some cases its assistant records customers' voices even when they aren't using the software.

British newspaper The Guardian also issued a report last month that made similar claims about Apple and what it does with recordings of people using Siri. The Guardian reported that Apple contractors regularly listen to the audio to help them determine whether customers activated it deliberately or by accident, and in doing so they often hear private communications.

The companies have said they employ contractors to listen to customer recordings, adding that workers capture only a smart portion of the audio in order to learn ways to improve the quality of the technology.

Google has said voice-assistant users can turn off storing audio data to their Google account completely, or choose to auto-delete data after every three months or 18 months.

"The use of speech-assistance systems must be transparent so that informed consent can be obtained from users," the German regulator said. "In particular, this involves sufficient and transparent information for those concerned about the processing of voice commands, but also about the frequency and risks of misactivation."


Write to Sarah E. Needleman at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 02, 2019 12:07 ET (16:07 GMT)

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