Categorize this under “one of the worst possible PR nightmares for a Google smart speaker.” According to Artem Russakovskii at Android Police, the Google Home Mini he was reviewing was randomly and near-constantly recording sounds in his home and transmitting them to Google. The company acknowledged the problem and is issuing a software update to resolve the issue, which appears to boil down to a failure of the touch sensor on the top.
Smart speakers like the Google Home Mini are designed to only listen for a specific wake word — in this case it’s “Hey Google” or “Ok Google.” Only then do their microphones record what you’re saying it, transmit it to the cloud, and try to answer your question. But there is usually a way to just hit a button and ask the embedded assistant a question. On the Mini, it’s holding your finger down on the top of it.
That seems to be the rub (pardon the pun) with Russakovskii’s Mini: it thought that somebody was holding its finger down on the top and so was randomly activating and recording. The good news is that the lights turned on to indicate it was listening, but the bad news is that it didn’t make an audible tone, so it took a trip through the Home’s search history to discover the error.
To Google’s credit, it seems to have scrambled the engineering jets to figure out the issue and create a fix. The fix, though, is removing a feature from the Mini. Google has altered the software so a simple touch won’t activate the Assistant, you have to say the wake word instead. Here’s Google’s statement about the issue.
“We learned of an issue impacting a small number of Google Home Mini devices that could cause the touch mechanism to behave incorrectly. We rolled out an update on October 7 to mitigate the issue. If you’re still having issues, please feel free to contact Google Support at 1-855-971-9121 to get a replacement Google Home Mini.”
Google has also posted a help article about the issue, characterizing the affected units as “early release Google Home Mini device at recent Made by Google events” and noting that it won’t affect preordered units sold at retail.
I suppose the “small number” piece is good to hear, assuming it actually is a small number. Even so, it’s a very bad look for Google. People are already leery of speakers listening to them and transmitting info without permission, so the last thing you want is to reenforce that worry. Also, deserved or not, people are doubly worried about the amount of information Google is collecting about them.
Finally, Google apparently wasn’t able to figure out something as seemingly simple as a touchable button under fabric, which doesn’t instill much confidence in its hardware prowess. At least it was fixed before the official release date for the Mini, October 19th.