Is Google Eavesdropping? Is it True that Google Can Listen In to Your Room Through Your Computer’s Microphone?

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There has been a lot on the web in the past few weeks about how Google has developed a method to use “a home computer’s internal microphone to listen to the ambient audio in a room, determine what is being watched on TV and offer web-based supplemental information, services and shopping contextual to each program being watched.”

In otherwords, Google eavesdropping.

So what’s the real story here?

Well, it is true that some members of Google’s research team have presented a paper on “Real-Time Ambient-Audio Identification”.

Said the authors on the official Google Research blog, “We showed how to sample the ambient sound emitted from a TV and automatically determine what is being watched from a small signature of the sound — all with complete privacy and minuscule effort. The system could keep up with users while they channel surf, presenting them with a real-time forum about a live political debate one minute and an ad-hoc chat room for a sporting event in the next. And, all of this would be done without users ever having to type or to even know the name of the program or channel being viewed.”

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Now, how the heck they can listen in to your room and determine what you are watching “with complete privacy” is beyond me. In fact, I suggest that listening in to your room is antithetical to “complete privacy”. Perhaps they mean with ‘complete anonymity” although that too would be a completely bogus claim, as they would have, at minimum, the IP address of the computer through which they were listening. Do they mean they will not keep that data? Do you trust them not to?

As to how Google (or any one else) could accomplish this listening in, the general consensus seems to be that it would be via your Flash software, with Google taking advantage of your Flash install to access either your computer’s built-in microphone or the audio on your webcam (which of course begs the question about them watching remotely).

A friend of mine has a good friend whom is quite senior at Flash, and he approached his friend about this. And here, reprinted with permission, is what his friend said:

“Yes, under some circumstances, the Flash Player can access the user’s
web cam and mic. The primary use case is for online collaboration
applications, like Breeze. By default, this requires the end-user to
explicitly authorize such access through a dialog prompt. For example,
if you go to a web site that wants access to your web cam as part of an
online meeting, you first will be prompted with a dialog to explicitly
allow it before the action can take place. The same is true of the
microphone. If you deny access, the action fails and the Flash media
cannot use these local resources.

The user can change the settings to override the default behavior of
prompting before the Flash Player can access the camera or mic. You can
“always allow access”, “always deny access”, and obviously use the
default action of “always ask me”. These requests are done on a per-web
site basis.

Any Flash media (including Breeze) that wants access to the camera
or mic require the user to authorize it. There is no way to bypass this
authorization, unless the end-user changes the setting to always allow
it or always deny it. This functionality is built into Flash Player.

When a Flash app runs and calls our API to activate the web cam or mic,
the Flash Player intercepts the request and prompts the user for
permission. This prompt can be suppressed by the user previously
setting
their setting to always allows or always deny a specific domain access
to this hardware.

By default, the Flash Player will always prompt. So, if you never
changed this setting (which is rare), no one can access this hardware
without you being prompted to allow it each and every time.”

So, there you have it. If Google plans to bring this to market, and if they plan to use Flash to do it, it should be the case that you will be required to opt-in before they can listen in.

But, that said, it’s probably not a bad idea to get in the habit of turning off your microphone and webcam when you aren’t using them.

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4 thoughts on “Is Google Eavesdropping? Is it True that Google Can Listen In to Your Room Through Your Computer’s Microphone?

  1. RFID scramblers anyone? There is a simple device that anyone can build that broadcasts noise on channels that RFID broadcasts on. Cell phone scramblers are available in Europe not sure if illegal there and here… but so is Corporate eavesdropping.

  2. …and will switch back to ordinary channels of information like TV, Newspapers….

    With HDTV, the government will be able to watch you. It’s safer to go with the newspapers (until the RFID secretly gets implanted in them)

  3. I dont know where the privacy will stand if they start doing this. As much of the users usually go for “always allow access” for trusted site. So if Google starts this HACKING without the knowledge of people, that means there is no safe place left on Internet. I would then most probably go for throwing my PC to dust bin and will switch back to ordinary channels of information like TV, Newspapers. Its a very high price of surfing!!!!

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