Are Google listening to you talking to your computer?

By | July 20, 2015
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I must admit, I do find myself rolling my eyes sometimes when I see reports of computer news in the newspapers. It’s not that I mind people not understanding it – there’s no shame in that. But when they write an article without putting the effort in to understand it first it makes it very confusing for everyone who reads the article!

Anyway, there’s been some fuss over the last few weeks about Google “listening in” on you via your computer – and depending on which article you’ve read about it, you might have got a very misleading version… and they all seemed to miss one crucial (but low tech) point.

Are Google Listening in on you in your own home?
Recently, some techies spotted that some of the code in Google Chrome could be used to help Google to “listen in” via your computer’s microphone..

No-one’s even suggesting that Google have actually gone ahead and done that – it’s just that there’s code there that could be used for that. (That reminds me of a story about the physicist Robert Oppenheimer – more on that in a moment)

The reasons it’s there is that you can control Chrome by voice, if you have a microphone plugged in. You can tell it you want it to listen by saying “OK Google” and that makes it start listening properly and trying to work out what you’re saying. It’s clever stuff, though I think it’s more useful on a tablet or smartphone than a PC, where you have a proper keyboard. I can see it might be useful for some people, though.

It’s while it’s listening out for you saying “OK Google” to get its attention that it’s “listening in” – it has to listen to what you’re saying in order to tell if you’ve said “OK Google”. And to help it turn the sound waves into words, so it can tell what you’ve actually said, it communicates via the internet with Google’s computer back at base. Which they could (if they wanted), then record. If they wanted to record what millions and millions of people say to their computers.

Some people have got very upset about this and have uninstalled Google Chrome from their PC. That’s up to them, of course, and there’s nothing wrong with using Internet Explorer or Firefox instead, if you prefer.

But I really don’t see Google wanting to listen to what you say to your PC… or even what you say while you’re using it. (When mine’s playing up, what I say might not be fit for public hearing, though…)

I’m not personally going to be uninstalling Chrome or worrying about it, though. And I definitely don’t think it’s an attempt by Google to spy on you. It’s just there to make the voice recognition work better.

Of course, when your PC is turned off, it’s irrelevant anyway.

Oh, and the low tech thing no-one seemed to spot? This all only works if you have a microphone that’s plugged in. Many desktop PCs don’t have one – in which case not even Google are clever enough to listen in on you, even if they wanted to.

Windows 10 – is it available for older computers?
A few people have asked about me mentioning that the Windows 10 upgrade will be free for Windows 7 or 8/8.1 users – what about people with computers running Windows Vista or XP?

Well, the free download from Microsoft is only for Windows 8/8.1 and Windows 7 users – not Windows Vista or Windows XP.

Microsoft haven’t said why they’re limiting it in this way – I wonder if they suspect a lot of PCs running the older systems won’t be fast enough to run the new Windows 10, but whether they think that or not, I know a lot of older machines can run it (I’ve tried it with some old Windows XP machines).

It should be possible to upgrade, still – it just won’t be free. But there’s nothing to stop anyone buying a copy for their PC. Whether there’ll be a reduced price upgrading an older version of Windows or whether you’d have to buy a full price copy I don’t know yet – we’ll have to see what comes out on July 29th.

A quick thank you!
I’ve had lots of people reply to my recent email or leave a comment on the website saying happy birthday to Alastair! Thanks to you all – he had a great birthday party and enjoyed his birthday too, even though the day itself was a school day. He’s now very excited about being five years old and that soon he won’t be in the youngest class at school.  Thanks for all the other kind comments about the books and so on, too!

Well, that’s all for now. Feel free to leave your thoughts or comments on the website version of this email – you can click here to access it (or there’s always a link in the top right hand corner of these emails).

Oh – the story I mentioned: It’s about Robert Oppenheimer, who was in charge of the atomic bomb project in the second world war.

Afterwards, the government got very up-tight about some physicists who’d been involved who may have had access to information they felt they shouldn’t have had access to. “Could this particular radioactive material be used for nuclear fission?” came the question.

Oppenheimer by now was pretty hacked off with them assuming that just because it could be used for it, that meant it was going to be used for that, not something else. So he replied “Yes, it could be used for nuclear fission. You could use a shovel for nuclear fission. In fact you do. You could use a bottle of beer for nuclear fission. In fact you do.” But of course, just because someone is walking along carrying a shovel or bottle of beer, doesn’t mean they’re off to build a nuclear bomb.

5 thoughts on “Are Google listening to you talking to your computer?

  1. MICHAEL PILBRO

    Tim,
    What a superb explanation about “Google Chrome”!!
    I have a Cousin who believes everything he reads in a Newspaper and on the TV. The Robert Oppenheimer story is so him, I am going to send him the text of the story; hope this is OK with you.
    He will not use the “Internet” or, has a Wi-Fi connection in case someone wants to hack into his private affairs and steal all his money from his bank Account. He believes that if he uses E-Mail he will be exposing himself to major theft and nothing anyone tells him will convince him otherwise. He can’t join your network, but I wish I could get him to contact you as he lives a very solitary existence and uses his Laptop as a calculator to check his bank balance each day…..until his Statement arrives in the mail.
    There is no accounting for People!!!
    Thanks for your solid support and advice.
    MICHAEL PILBRO (France)

    Reply
    1. Tim Post author

      Yes, by means pass it on!
      It’s a difficult line, sometimes, being a bit cautious because there are bad guys out there on the internet, but also not getting swept up in panics that maybe aren’t as bad as they sound – especially when some of the newspaper articles aren’t as carefully written as they might be!
      Tim

      Reply
  2. Leigh Treymaine

    Tim,
    I have bought many of your books amd wonder if you have any plans to write one about Doro smartphones.
    I have bought one as they are supposed to be the easiest for pensioners to learn to use.However I’m struggling somewhat.Mine is the latest Doro 820 mini and if I had one of your booklets about it I would find it a great help.So please think about it.
    Regards,
    Leigh

    Reply
    1. Tim Post author

      Hmm – that’s interesting. I’ve been thinking about whether we should do something about smartphones for a while, so I’ll have a look into these in particular.

      Thanks for the tip!
      Tim

      Reply
  3. John Potter

    Hi Leigh
    We have had a Doro for a couple of years now, and think the’re brilliant. We don’t want anything too complicated, and the Doro phones are so easy to understand and operate.
    If you are having problems with yours, why not have a look at their website, and read/download the relavant guide, it’s so easy to understand.
    Regards
    John

    Reply

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