Is Google recording your conversations without you knowing?

You’ve probably heard about the case of the Amazon Alexa smart speaker that recorded a conversation and sent it to someone.

Amazon has been forced to explain how Alexa recorded a private conversation and sent it to an Echo userโ€™s colleague without their knowledge. A Portland woman identified only as Danielle revealed the odd series of events in an interview with local TV station Kiro 7, claiming that an Amazon Echo device recorded a private conversation between her and her husband and sent the recording to an employee of the husband. — The Verge

I haven’t got any speakers in my house that record. (Some of the newer Sonos devices can do it. Mine can’t.)

And I don’t think I particularly want any.

The other week, probably triggered by the EU’s GDPR legislation, I got an email from Google suggesting I do a privacy check.

I had a look, and digging around found a page on Voice Activity.

To my surprise, this has dozens of voice recordings, going back about 18 months.

Google voice recordings

Apparently the Google app on my Android phone (actually my current phone and the previous one) has semi-regularly decided I was trying to attract the attention of the Google Assistant (normally invoked by saying “OK Google”), and started recording, then saved the recordings in the cloud.

I can play the recordings. The sound quality isn’t great, but you can make out the words. In none of them did I actually want the Google Assistant. They’re just random conversations with people.

You can turn the option off (well, you can pause it). Which I’ve now done.

It’s good that you can access the recordings, and change the option.

But I wonder how many people don’t know that Google is recording snippets of conversations and saving them on their servers?

Check yours via this direct link, or go to myaccount.google.com and then choose My Activity; Activity Controls; Voice & Audio Activity (where you can also Pause the feature).

Note: the Google App is also available on iOS, so it’s worth checking even if you have an iPhone, not an Android… And of course Siri has similar functionality.

New phone: Google Nexus 5, first impressions

Over the years I’ve tried to avoid being sucked into buying the latest and greatest technology just for the sake of it.

But I must admit being keen to check out the new Android 4.4 (Kit Kat) and Google Nexus 5 phone.

What would I need a new phone for? I could put Kit Kat on my old phone!

I've got Kit Kat on my phone

Seriously though, I’d upgraded my old HTC Desire S to Android 4.0, and while it works, it’s noticeably slower. I was thinking I’d downgrade it back to 2.3 (the ROMs for HTC phones, for both 2.3 and 4.0 are available here), but given I’ve had it a couple of years, what about a new phone?

Having seen Tony’s Nexus 4, over the past few weeks I found myself salivating for the about-to-be-released Nexus 5. It was finally officially announced and released on the 1st of November.

I was pondering this when my tax return came back, and would easily cover buying one. The Nexus 5 is cheap for a flagship phone — much cheaper than an iPhone. The 16 Gb model is A$399, the 32 Gb is A$449. You can’t upgrade the storage in it via an SD card, so choose wisely. Obviously a lot of people went for the 32 Gb, as it sold out quickly on the first day.

Fortunately a bloke I know accidentally bought two 32 Gb models in black — my preferred colour — he’d been desperately clicking through trying to make sure he got one before it sold out, and wasn’t sure his order had been accepted, so kept clicking.

On last Wednesday I met him at Southern Cross Station to exchange cash for a box with the phone in it, like an extremely geeky version of a drug deal.

I’m not going to bother doing a comprehensive review of the phone — that’s better handled by the professionals. But here’s a few notes on it, which I’ll keep expanding as I go.

Google Nexus 5 phone

First impressions

It’s a bit bigger than the Desire S. Wonder if it’ll fit in my front jeans pocket, which is where I tend to put my phone if I’m sitting down and have no other pocket.

Lovely bright high-resolution display.

The on/off button is on the right hand side, rather than the top as I’m used to, but I’ll adjust. Oddly it feels just a teensy bit loose. Hopefully that won’t be a problem in the future.

I’m thinking I might get a case, or at least a bumper, for it. It looks sturdy enough, but some protection might be good.

Setup

The old phone had a mini-SIM. The Nexus 5 takes a micro-SIM. I sidled into a Telstra shop to get it sorted out, and they used a cutting tool to chop it down. Low-tech, but effective.

Android to Android is pretty easy, because all the contacts and so on are kept “in the cloud” as part of your Google Account.

Text messages, pictures etc weren’t brought across. I copied all the pictures and voice recordings manually off the old phone for archiving on my PC at home.

Text messages were easily saved off the old phone using the freeware SMS Backup & Restore. It saves all the messages into an XML document, making it human-readable if I don’t want to import them into the new phone… which I don’t, especially.

Once the new phone was running, it was easy to go into the Play Store and re-install wanted apps onto it. So far I haven’t seen anything I had on the old phone that was labelled as incompatible with the new one, though I haven’t re-installed absolutely everything — I’m being a little more discerning.

Likes

Very fast. Good to see.

Display is very nice.

I like the effect when the screen turns off. Looks like an old-style television shutting down.

Camera quality in general looks good, though the old phone was able to adjust the white balance (and focus) to a particular object by touching the screen while lining up the shot. This doesn’t appear to have that feature, making some photos more difficult than in the past.

Micro-USB connection — excellent, compatible with my previous phone, so I have plenty of cables.

As with all Android phones, I love the way you can just copy stuff to and from it — not tied to pushing things through iTunes.

Beefs

Any new phone will take some getting used to. This is good, but it’s not perfect…

The iPad and my old phone both had an easy way to grab a screen capture. Does Kit Kat not have this?
People keep telling me to hold down Power and Volume Down… this doesn’t do anything for me. What am I doing wrong?
— 12/11/2013: Okay, figured it out. Unlike with my old phone, you have to press Power and Volume Down simultaneously, not one then the other.

Despite a front-facing camera, it has no mirror app?

I’ve spent years gradually changing all the phone numbers in my contact list to be +61 4xx xxx xxx (4 for mobile, at least) – so the theory was if I ever wanted to dial one from overseas, it would work. Imagine my surprise when incoming texts and calls don’t match up to the names. Only those that are in there as 04xx xxx xxx match up. Seriously?

Text messages are rolled into an app which also handles Google Hangouts. Neato — I guess they’re taking on iMessage. But why when writing a text message, does it not give me a character count, so I know how much I can write without going over 160 characters and paying extra?

More to come

14/11/2013 — I haven’t yet played with Google Now, but this article goes into a bit of detail about how to use it.

Google celebrates 150 years of London Underground – and could we have bought Oyster?

As seen at google.co.uk on Wednesday. Very cool.

Google Doodle London Underground

(Large version found via the Going Underground blog)

Note the subtle shading of fare zones, which reflects how they look on the official maps.

It’s been claimed in the past that in Melbourne we couldn’t adopt an existing smartcard ticket system like Oyster because Melbourne had specific needs. I disagree… London has zones, trains, trams, buses and ferries. We have zones, trains, trams, buses. A handful of ferries run in Melbourne, but aren’t part of the integrated fare system.

Myki and OysterNot so different.

Perhaps it wouldn’t have saved much money to buy Oyster (Sydney is doing so, and it’s costing a similar amount to Myki), but I bet it would have saved time getting it running, and from what I’ve seen, we would have got faster response times on the readers.

That said, Brisbane implemented Oyster as “Go” card, and has had some issues. And Myki’s ambition was to cover most of Victoria with fare zones – I wonder if Oyster could have handled that. (V/Line buses run to Canberra and Adelaide. Adelaide was going to be zone 73.)

But of course now Myki has been cut in scope to go no further than the V/Line commuter belt — 13 zones in all. I suspect it could have handled it.

And the rumour is some in the bureaucracy are beginning to realise the way Myki was built was a mistake. Too late now.

Who “owns” your surname?

Go to Google News (preferably in an anonymous browser window so it’s not skewed towards your usual searches — though it will detect your location/country).

Search for your surname. Who comes up top?

For me it’s Immigration Minister Chris Bowen.

The timewaster

The curse of the Internet and the short attention span — there’s too much stuff to look at.

So I check my email.

Then I have a look in Google Reader.

What’s Twitter doing? Okay.

Facebook? My turn in Scrabble yet?

Might check a couple of the news sites and see what’s happening.

And the Whirlpool forum?

OK, all under control. But hey, I wonder if there’s any new email?

Rinse and repeat. How do I break this cycle?

I once had an idea for it: a combined mega-reader/aggregator that would grab data from all those sources and more, configured by the user. It would rank everything according to a priority — again, configured by the user — perhaps the emails from your boss and/or spouse at the top, the dull email newsletter which you should read but don’t want to at the bottom, and news bulletins somewhere in the middle.

So you could see everything in one hit, all prioritised.

I even came up with a name and a domain name for it: View My World.

And I did some rough designs on it, but never got to the coding stage.

I still think it’s a good idea, and anybody who’s got the time and inclination to work on it should give me a shout, maybe we can come up with a collaboration.

Meanwhile, amusingly, ViewMyWorld.com is now registered by Microsoft, and appears to be a recruitment web site.

(Anybody who wants to develop the Screaming Room idea should also give me a scream shout. I already have a prospective subscriber in Derrimut.)