But Android Police founder Artem Russakvoskii got one of a handful of units that suffered from a bug. A serious one. And after investigation the issue, Google is rolling out a software update that disables a key feature in order to protect user privacy.
The bug basically caused a small number of units to record sounds at random times and send the audio to Google’s servers. The update stops that from happening, but at a cost.
Basically there are supposed to be two ways to interact with a Google Home Mini:
- Speak the “OK Google” hotword when you’re within range.
- Long-press the top of the device.
Unfortunately, Russakvoskii discovered that his unit was waking up at random times and recording and transmitting audio unexepectedly. It turns out his Google Home Mini was registering “phantom touches,” which means it thought someone was pressing the top of the speaker when nobody was actually doing that.
Once notified, Google responded very promptly with a quick investigation and solution. While not all Google Home Mini devices have this issue, it’s probably hard for the company to figure out which units are affected. So it’s disabling the long-press to activate functionality on all units, at least for now.
On the one hand, the bug sort of confirmed every privacy advocate’s worst fear: that it’s possible for this sort of smart home speaker to actually be used as an always-listening device that transmits your data to a third party without your knowledge.
On the other hand, Google really did jump into action to ensure that the units in the wild would only send data when you ask them to. Clearly, with a product like this, companies like Google are walking a fine line between useful and creepy, and it’s incumbent on those companies to take steps to draw a line between privacy and utility if they hope to convince people to put smart speakers with mics and/or cameras in their homes.
It’s unclear if Google will re-enable the long-press functionality in a future update, or possibly after a new batch of devices are manufactured in a way that doesn’t lead to the same phantom touch problem.
Update: Google says the issue has been fixed, and only affected some pre-release units handed out at the recent Made by Google event where the speaker was launched. Units that have been pre-ordered by customers shouldn’t be affected.
For early testers, Google says it’s deleted all saved activity and queries created by a long-press of the top of the speaker from between October 4th and October 7th, when the issue was discovered in order to make sure that no data that wasn’t supposed to be transmitted to Google is saved.
A Google spokesperson also contacted Liliputing to let us know that any customers who still notice an issue can contact Google Support at 1-855-971-9121 to get a replacement Google Home Mini device.
Update 2: Google says it will “permanently remove all top touch functionality on the Google Home Mini,” in order to prevent this from happening to anyone else. That makes the device a little less useful… but hopefully a lot more private. Here’s a statement from a Google spokesperson:
“We take user privacy and product quality concerns very seriously. Although we only received a few reports of this 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.”