Google, like Samsung, is eavesdropping on your private conversations

June 24, 2015
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If you use Google Chrome, you could be subject to eavesdropping by Google.  Similar to what Samsung’s TVs are doing, the Chromium browser listens to conversations in the vicinity of your laptop, PC, or tablet, and transmits it back to Google.  Ostensibly, this is part of the “Google Now” voice activation feature of Chrome.  Privacy campaigners and some developers think it’s more nefarious.  Blogger Ofer Zelig has this to say:

A few days ago, while I was working on my PC at home, I noticed something strange. My PC has a web camera (combined with a microphone) that sits on top of my monitor, and the camera has a small blue LED that lights when the camera and/or microphone are operating.

While I was working I thought I’m noticing that an LED goes on and off, on the corner of my eyesight. And after a few times when it just seemed weird, I sat to watch for it and saw it happening. Every few seconds or so. I opened Task Manager (I’m working on Windows. Apologies.) and looked for a process to blame on that dodgy activity. Who is listening to me? I didn’t find anything. I know my PC pretty well and I didn’t have any crappy malware accidentally installed. There were a few suspicious processes that I shut down but it didn’t make any difference, and I left it like that.

And then I’ve come across this bug report – it’s Google! And according to them it’s not a bug! They silently put this new module in Chrome (or Chromium to be precise, doesn’t matter much from an end-user perspective). It’s a prepackaged binary and Google’s response response to the “issue” was pretty odd.

Apparently the issue is that someone added the non-open source component for Google Now to the open source code for Chromium.  Google is asking that the component be removed, but for now, the default install still contains the code, and could transmit conversations or other sound back to Google.

As privacy concerns related to spying using your PC’s camera or microphone mount, many security experts recommend covering your camera’s lens and disabling your microphone when not in use.  Even the NSA recommends these steps.  There are products built to cover your camera lens; a bit of masking or electrical tape will work just as well.  You can disable any built-in microphones via software, but some experts note that a hacker could re-enable it without your knowledge, and recommend using a “dummy plug” – basically, a microphone plug with no mic attached – instead.  You can buy a cheap microphone or headphone adapter and plug that into the microphone port, or you can cut the cord off a cheap pair of earbuds and use that; just make sure the wires don’t touch so it doesn’t short out your mic port.

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