Originally published July 5 2015
Google secretly installs audio snooping program on Chrome browsers to listen to your private conversations
by J. D. Heyes
(NaturalNews) Media giant Google's corporate motto is "Don't Be Evil," but it increasingly appears as though the company rarely follows its own advice.
As reported by Britain's The Guardian newspaper, privacy advocates and open source developers are livid after discovering that the installation of Google's browsing software, Google Chrome, comes with an added capability: it allows remote technicians to listen in on conversations held near computers where the browser is installed.
The capability was first identified by open source developers, who noticed that the Chromium browser that Chrome is based on remotely installed audio surveillance code enabling computers to be tapped.
As noted by the paper:
It was designed to support Chrome's new "OK, Google" hotword detection - which makes the computer respond when you talk to it - but was installed, and, some users have claimed, it is activated on computers without their permission.
"Without consent, Google's code had downloaded a black box of code that – according to itself – had turned on the microphone and was actively listening to your room," Rick Falkvinge, the Pirate party founder, wrote in a blog post. "Which means that your computer had been stealth configured to send what was being said in your room to somebody else, to a private company in another country, without your consent or knowledge, an audio transmission triggered by... an unknown and unverifiable set of conditions."
Installs without your permission or knowledgeWhen computer users install Google's Chrome browser, the feature is installed by default. Open source advocates are also upset about it being installed with the open source variant Chromium; the listening code is considered "black box" and not a part of the open source auditing process.
"We don't know and can't know what this black box does," Falkvinge observed.
Google technicians responded to the complaints about the program via the company's developer boards.
"While we do download the hotword module on startup, we do not activate it unless you opt in to hotwording," the response noted.
However, reports from developers suggest that might not be the case.
After pinpointing Chromium as the offending program, Ofer Zelig noted in his own blog post, "While I was working I thought 'I'm noticing that an LED goes on and off, on the corner of my eyesight [webcam]'. 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."
In addition, Google programmers laid the blame on the Linux distribution Debian for downloading the non-open source component automatically with Chromium instead of Google Chrome.
"Chromium, the open-source version of Google Chrome, had abused its position as trusted upstream to insert lines of source code that bypassed this audit-then-build process, and which downloaded and installed a black box of unverifiable executable code directly onto computers, essentially rendering them compromised," wrote Falkvinge. "We don't know and can't know what this black box does. But we see reports that the microphone has been activated, and that Chromium considers audio capture permitted."
We're not listening – trust us!"The key here is that Chromium is not a Google product. We do not directly distribute it, or make any guarantees with respect to compliance with various open source policies," Google developer "mgiuca" wrote.
However, Falkvinge countered, "The default install will still wiretap your room without your consent, unless you opt out, and more importantly, know that you need to opt out, which is nowhere a reasonable requirement."
He added that a hardware switch to disable the microphone and camera built into most computers is required – a further step to ensure your privacy.
In a statement to The Guardian, a Google spokeswoman said that the company was not listening to computer users' conversations.
"We're sure you'll be relieved to learn we're not listening to your conversations – nor do we want to. We're simply giving Chrome users the ability to search hands free at their computers by saying 'OK Google' while on the Google homepage – and only if they choose to opt in to the feature," said the spokeswoman.
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