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Why it Matters that Google Home Can Now Identify You by Voice | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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The new Google Pixel phone is displayed next to a Google Home smart speaker in 2016 after a product event in San Francisco. (Eric Risberg/Associated Press)

Washington – Smart home hubs are continuing to evolve, and Google just added a pretty important feature to its own hub, the Google Home.

Previously, Home linked up only to the account of whoever set it up first. Now, the device will be able to handle multiple accounts and tell who’s speaking to it, offering personalized answers to some questions.

That is a feature that Amazon’s Echo doesn’t have. And it’s important for a voice assistant designed to run your household. For an assistant such as Siri, which lives on devices used by just one person, multi-account support isn’t as important. But home hubs sit in a central location and operate such things as your lights or your thermostat, which everyone will want to be able to control.

Being able to identify an individual’s voice may also help cut down on some unwanted surprises. Google said in a statement that the new feature makes it so that “only you would be able to shop via Google Home.” So others — i.e., your children or an intelligent parrot — shouldn’t be able to tell Home to buy something on your account. That avoids instances like one in San Diego in January when Amazon Echo units started ordering dollhouses after hearing a news anchor on television repeat what a girl had said when she had ordered a dollhouse and some cookies. The anchor was reporting on a story about — what else? — a child buying something without permission on the Echo.

That said, Google also noted that the voice feature isn’t yet foolproof. “We’re just getting started and we won’t be perfect,” the statement said. “We don’t recommend that users rely upon voice identification as a security feature.”

Although there are benefits to having home hubs distinguish different voices, there are also some privacy implications to think about. Consumers worried about their voice data being collected in general should think twice before picking up a home hub, said Bradley Shear of the privacy-focused, Maryland-based Shear Law. With this new feature, he said, it’s worth keeping in mind that Google will have even more specific information about you, which could be used in ways that consumers may not realize — particularly if it’s combined with other information tied to your Google account.

Consumers should also think about how this information could be used outside of the company, Shear said. He pointed to a recent murder case in Arkansas in which police asked Amazon for audio recorded from the suspect’s home hub, the Echo. (Amazon fought the order before the suspect agreed to share the information.) Shear said that case illustrated how recordings made in your home may end up being used in unexpected ways.

“It has a clean voiceprint from you,” Shear said, speaking of the new feature. “Once something is digitized, you don’t know where it could end up.”

After all, while both Google Home and Alexa devices collect voice data only when you use their respective wake phrases — “Alexa,” “Ok Google” or “Hey Google” — anyone who owns one of these devices also knows that they can sometimes trigger by accident. That opens up the potential for comments you make in private to be taken out of context or shared to an audience you never intended, particularly if the recording can be definitively identified as your voice. (Users can wipe their voice recordings from their Google accounts, per the company’s privacy policy.)

From a usability standpoint, there are also some problems with these hubs that identifying individuals by voice can’t fix. This won’t solve the “Burger King” problem of commercials being able to trigger the Google Home through your television. Anyone in range of the Google Home will still be able to use its non-personalized features. So even if you don’t create an account for your guests or your children, they’ll still be able to ask it to do things such as answer questions, set timers or play videos on a Chromecast.

To set up the new feature, users will have to hop on to the Google Home app, which should have a new option for “multi-user” support on any Google Home connected to your network. Google Home owners can add up to six accounts, according to a company blog post.

Google Home owners will have to teach the hub how to identify their voices by saying “Ok Google” and “Hey Google” twice into the device, when prompted. This allows it to learn different characteristics of each person’s voice. This kind of training should be familiar to anyone who uses Siri or the voice assistant on Google’s phones — the key difference being that you’ll have to go through it multiple times on Home, depending on how many accounts you want to hook up.

Google said it will use its network to “compare the sound of your voice to its previous analysis so we can understand if it’s you speaking or not.” The company promises this should take only a few milliseconds.

The feature is rolling out to all US users starting Thursday. Google said it also plans to bring this feature to Britain in “the coming months.”

The Washington Post