Google – much like Amazon before them – has recently admitted that “contractors” can access recordings made by their Google Assistant. Whilst this may be troubling for those who use Google Home, which has Google Assistant built in, unlike Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant is also used in Android phones to power any voice activation features. This means that Google may be recording – and allowing external contractors to listen to and transcribe – any conversation you may be having at home or whenever you are near your mobile phone.
The company admitted on Thursday that humans can access recordings made by the Assistant, after some of its Dutch language recordings were leaked. Google is investigating the breach.
The recordings were obtained by the Belgian public broadcaster VRT, which reviewed more than 1,000 audio clips and found 153 had been captured accidentally.
Whilst a Google spokesman claimed that all recordings are stripped of any personal information, the Guardian go on to state:
The report from VRT found recordings of users that had identifiable information, including one person’s address and other personal information, like a family discussing their grandchildren by name, another user discussing their love life, and one user talking about how quickly a child was growing.
In 2017, Google confirmed a bug in its Home Mini speaker allowed the smart device to record users even when it was not activated by the wake up word.
It is possible that Amazon and Google may have to change their practices to comply with GDPR regulations, at least ceasing to use external contractors. But I wonder how many of us would install these devices if we knew that strangers might be able to freely listen in to our conversations?
Of course, for the Christian, we believe that there is a God who will hold us accountable for every careless word that we speak. Unlike Google or Amazon, he will also hold us to account for every evil thought that we think too. This prompts me to wonder from a Christian perspective about this news story.
Under the watchful eye of the Lord we reckon that we are to be the same people in public that we are in private. Christians have long made the case that the personal lives of our public servants does matter because what we are in private is what we are in reality. Christians make the case that character matters. Most Bible-believing Christians rightly scoff at those who hold private views which are somehow different to their public views. This is equally specious whether it comes from politicians or from church leaders. As such, if we genuinely are the same people in private that we are in public (as we ought to be), should we overly worry that Google might listen to things we say privately?
Of course, there are matters that should remain entirely private. Whilst I have nothing particularly to hide about my sex life, that is not a matter for public broadcast. Whilst I don’t have anything specific to hide about my children, or my financial setup, these again are not things for everyone. So long as my sex life remains solely between me and my wife (which it is and always should) it is not a matter for anybody else. My family life is a matter for me, my family and those with whom we are in close relationship. My financial setup is a matter for my family, my church and HMRC. Different issues will have a bigger or smaller circle of people permitted to know about them but there are few issues that are broadcastable for everyone.
Having said that, as far as I can see, neither Google nor Amazon are broadcasting what is recorded to everyone. Similarly, by adopting their technology in our homes, we are giving somebody the right to listen in to what is said when we use the wake word. It is a choice we are making to allow them to hear certain bits of discussion. It is only at the point they record what ought not to be recorded there is an issue. But if we are the same people in our home as out of it, do we have much to fear from anybody listening in?
Perhaps the danger is in increasing intolerance of certain Christian views. We may be more forthright about our views among friends than we might be in public. But if we are not stating what is true in public, that represents as much as problem about our careless words and raises questions about sins of omission.
I am not saying all Christians must purchase a megaphone and list all their views publicly, start to finish, just so everybody knows what we think about anything. But if nobody knows any of our supposedly contentious views – starting with the gospel ( the very message of the cross itself being an offence) and then various of its moral ramifications – it bears asking why not? Could our desire to not let Google listen to what we say in private (a perfectly legitimate desire of itself) reveal a heart problem that we simply don’t want people to know our views at all? It may well speak to our being ashamed of Christ and his gospel and a desire not to be known as one who holds Biblical views for entirely ungodly reasons.
There is an well-worn picture that people use to encourage us to consider the state of lives before a Holy God. Imagine you are in a room where all your thoughts, words and actions are stored. All of your friends, family, neighbours and anyone who ever knew you is there. Suddenly, all the pictures, thoughts, words, actions are played on a big screen in front of everyone. How would you feel? The first point is that we all know we would be ashamed. The second is that this is what will happen before the Lord on the last day. The third point, and the key gospel one, is that those who trust in Jesus will not be put to shame. Such a film will not be played about those who believe because the only thing that will be shown is the perfect life of Christ in our place.
On the last day, there is will be more knowledge of what you have done than Google or Amazon could ever hope to glean. There will be more shame than a few contractors privately looking back at old transcripts or (probably) quite dull family conversation. But those who trust in Christ will not be put to shame. Those who believe by faith in Jesus will not have all their unrighteous deeds put on display. There will be no an answer demanded from the Lord nor any guilty verdict passed for which we have no defence. We will be welcomed as good and faithful servants, not because we are especially good or faithful, but because all that will be shown is the perfectly good and faithful life and death of Christ who paid the price for all those misdeeds such that there is now no record thereof.
But for those who do genuinely trust in Christ, our private life and our public life must come into line. There should be no private view, or private behaviour, that discredits our public profession of faith. We should not rail against sin publicly and then privately indulge or excuse it. For those who are forgiven in Christ, we are free to own our sin because we know that our sin has been covered by the blood of Jesus. It means we can acknowledge what is sinful, we acknowledge that we fall short but that our public view – we are all sinners in need of grace – is the same as our private view, that we are sinners in need of grace. We can point to the holiness toward which we are striving whilst recognise that we are simul justus et peccator.
If our desire is to keep our views private, then there are wider problems about our view of the Christian life. There should be no distinction between our public and private lives. If that is true, let Google listen to what they may. If there really no distinction between our public and private lives, perhaps as they listen, they might even hear the gospel of grace and listen to how it is worked out in a Christian home.