Google’s new $49 smart speaker should begin shipping soon, and early reviews of the Google Home Mini have been mostly positive.

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.”

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2 replies on “Google Home Mini touch activation disabled due to serious privacy bug”

  1. meh. People worried about the mics on these things mostly haven’t seemed to notice that the cell phone they carry religiously also has a mic on it.
    I can certainly see Google moving to fix this problem. And, given the irrational nature of the public perception moving to do it with all haste and despite obstacles. But that’s about the reality of public perception more than it is about the reality of the actual effects of this situation. ‘
    This all comes back to the money both Apple and Microsoft have spread around to further the idea that Google is creepy due to its business model. Oddly I never hear about Microsoft being creepy even though Win 10 is loaded with privacy issues under the ‘Cortana’ banner. As far as I know they still haven’t spelled out exactly what data they collect or who – including their ‘trusted partners’ – gets to see it or in what form.

    1. Are you kidding? I hear about MS being creepy all the time. I guess I hover around techie/open-source circles who would be more prone to that sort of conversation. I guess in the general media stories about Google and MS are different recently, with the former more about creepy software (from driving cars to these speakers) and the latter about the 10S controversy and the hardware coming out with it.

      As soon as I installed Win10 on my desktop, I had Cortana drawn and quartered. There’s a reason Spybot Anti-Beacon is a thing, and it’s a good starting place if you haven’t locked down Win10 already.

      I think I’d be more comfortable with a smart speaker than my phone since I can more easily monitor all the traffic coming and going from it.

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