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Google ordered to halt human review of voice AI recordings over privacy risks

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A German privacy watchdog has ordered Google  to cease manual reviews of audio snippets generated by its voice AI. 

This follows a leak last month of scores of audio snippets from the Google Assistant service. A contractor working as a Dutch language reviewer handed more than 1,000 recordings to the Belgian news site VRT which was then able to identify some of the people in the clips. It reported being able to hear people’s addresses, discussion of medical conditions, and recordings of a woman in distress.

The Hamburg data protection authority told Google of its intention to use Article 66 powers of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to begin an “urgency procedure” under Article 66 of GDPR last month.

Article 66 allows a DPA to order data processing to stop if it believes there is “an urgent need to act in order to protect the rights and freedoms of data subjects”.

This appears to be the first use of the power since GDPR came into force across the bloc in May last year.

Google says it responded to the DPA on July 26 to say it had already ceased the practice — taking the decision to manually suspend audio reviews of Google Assistant across the whole of Europe, and doing so on July 10, after learning of the data leak.

Last month it also informed its lead privacy regulator in Europe, the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC), of the breach — which also told us it is now “examining” the issue that’s been highlighted by Hamburg’s order.

The Irish DPC’s head of communications, Graham Doyle, said Google Ireland filed an Article 33 breach notification for the Google Assistant data “a couple of weeks ago”, adding: “We note that as of 10 July Google Ireland ceased the processing in question and that they have committed to the continued suspension of processing for a period of at least three months starting today (1 August). In the meantime we are currently examining the matter.”

It’s not clear whether Google will be able to reinstate manual reviews in Europe in a way that’s compliant with the bloc’s privacy rules. The Hamburg DPA writes in a statement [in German] on its website that it has “significant doubts” about whether Google Assistant complies with EU data-protection law.

“We are in touch with the Hamburg data protection authority and are assessing how we conduct audio reviews and help our users understand how data is used,” Google’s spokesperson also told us.

In a blog post published last month after the leak, Google product manager for search, David Monsees, claimed manual reviews of Google Assistant queries are “a critical part of the process of building speech technology”, couching them as “necessary” to creating such products.

“These reviews help make voice recognition systems more inclusive of different accents and dialects across languages. We don’t associate audio clips with user accounts during the review process, and only perform reviews for around 0.2% of all clips,” Google’s spokesperson added now.

But it’s far from clear whether human review of audio recordings captured by any of the myriad always-on voice AI products and services now on the market will be able to be compatible with European’s fundamental privacy rights.

These AIs typically have trigger words for activating the recording function which streams audio data to the cloud. But the technology can easily be accidentally triggered — and leaks have shown they are able to hoover up sensitive and intimate personal data not just of their owner but anyone in their vicinity (which of course includes people who never got within sniffing distance of any T&Cs).

In its website the Hamburg DPA says the intended proceedings against Google are intended to protect the privacy rights of affected users in the immediate term, noting that GDPR allows for concerned authorities in EU Member States to issue orders of up to three months.

In a statement Johannes Caspar, the Hamburg commissioner for data protection, added: “The use of language assistance systems in the EU must comply with the data protection requirements of the GDPR. In the case of the Google Assistant, there are currently significant doubts. The use of language assistance systems must be done in a transparent way, so that an informed consent of the users is possible. In particular, this involves providing sufficient information and transparently informing those concerned about the processing of voice commands, but also about the frequency and risks of mal-activation. Finally, due regard must be given to the need to protect third parties affected by the recordings. First of all, further questions about the functioning of the speech analysis system have to be clarified. The data protection authorities will then have to decide on definitive measures that are necessary for a privacy-compliant operation. ”

The DPA also urges other regional privacy watchdogs to prioritize checks on other providers of language assistance systems — and “implement appropriate measures” — name-checking rival providers of voice AIs, Apple  and Amazon .

This suggests there could be wider ramifications for other tech giants operating voice AIs in Europe flowing from this single notification of an Article 66 order.

The real enforcement punch packed by GDPR is not the headline-grabbing fines, which can scale as high as 4% of a company’s global annual turnover — it’s the power that Europe’s DPAs now have in their regulatory toolbox to order that data stops flowing.

“This is just the beginning,” one expert on European data protection legislation told us, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The Article 66 chest is open and it has a lot on offer.”

In a sign of the potential scale of the looming privacy problems for voice AIs, Apple also said earlier today that it’s suspending a similar human review ‘quality control program’ for its Siri voice assistant.

The move, which does not appear to be linked to any regulatory order, follows a Guardian report last week detailing claims by a whistleblower that contractors working for Apple ‘regularly hear confidential details’ on Siri recordings, such as audio of people having sex and identifiable financial details, regardless of the processes Apple uses to anonymize the records.

Apple’s suspension of manual reviews of Siri snippets applies worldwide.

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An implantable device that produces energy using ultrasound

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A team of researchers affiliated with several institutions in the Republic of Korea has developed a type of implantable device that produces energy using an external ultrasound source. In their paper published in the journal Science, the group describes their device, how it was built and how well it worked when tested on animal tissue.

The development of the pacemaker has undoubtedly saved many lives, but it also has risks for patients that have them implanted into their chests. The devices have to be replaced periodically, putting patients at risk of infection—there is also some degree of pain and irritation involved. For that reason, scientists have searched for ways to generate power inside the body, making batteries unnecessary. In this new effort, the researchers have designed a generator that produces power when exposed to an ultrasound source.

The generator designed by the researchers is a type of triboelectric generator. Such generators harvest energy from the triboelectric effect—where contact electrification occurs when two dissimilar objects touch and are then pulled apart—static electricity is an example of the triboelectric effect. The generator used by the team had two squares of material inside of it that were forced together when exposed to ultrasound. When the ultrasound signal was removed, the materials separated and a small amount of electricity was produced and captured in the generator. By repeating the process over and over in rapid succession, a constant stream of electricity was generated. The team also added other components to their device to allow for interfacing with other devices—and they had to make sure it could withstand being implanted into a living creature.
The researchers tested their generator by implanting it into some pig tissue at various depths and then firing ultrasound at it through the skin. They report that at depths of five millimeters, the generator produced electricity with a current up to 156 microamps and up to 2.4 volts. At depths of a centimeter, the generator was able to produce 98 microamps and 1.9 volts. The researchers note that if such agenerator could be used to run pacemakers and other implantable devices, patients could be spared the necessity of having to undergo surgery to have them replaced periodically.

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Scientists reveal first-ever image of a black hole

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Scientists on Wednesday revealed the first image ever made of a black hole, depicting its hot, shadowy edges where light bends around itself in a cosmic funhouse effect.

Assembling data gathered by eight radio telescopes around the world, astronomers created the picture showing the violent neighborhood around a supermassive black hole, the light-sucking monsters of the universe theorized by Einstein more than a century ago and confirmed by observations for decades.

It looked like a flaming orange, yellow and black ring.

“We have seen what we thought was unseeable. We have seen and taken a picture of a black hole. Here it is,” said Sheperd Doeleman of Harvard.

Read: New map of universe shows 300,000 more galaxies

Jessica Dempsey, a co-discoverer and deputy director of the East Asian Observatory in Hawaii, said it reminded her of the powerful flaming Eye of Sauron from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

Unlike smaller black holes that come from collapsed stars, supermassive black holes are mysterious in origin. Situated at the center of most galaxies, including ours, they are so dense that nothing, not even light, can escape their gravitational pull.

This one’s “event horizon” the point of no return around it, where light and matter begin to fall inexorably into the abyss is as big as our entire solar system.

Three years ago, scientists using an extraordinarily sensitive observing system heard the sound of two much smaller black holes merging to create a gravitational wave, as Albert Einstein predicted.

The new image, published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters and announced around the world in several news conferences, adds light to that sound.

Outside scientists suggested the achievement could be worthy of a Nobel Prize, just like the gravitational wave discovery.

While much around a black hole falls into a death spiral and is never to be seen again, the new image captures “lucky gas and dust” circling at just far enough to be safe and seen millions of years later on Earth, Dempsey said.

Taken over four days when astronomers had “to have the perfect weather all across the world and literally all the stars had to align,” the image helps confirm Einstein’s general relativity theory, Dempsey said.

Einstein a century ago even predicted the symmetrical shape that scientists just found, she said. “It’s circular, but on one side the light is brighter,” Dempsey said.

That’s because that light is approaching Earth.

The measurements are taken at a wavelength the human eye cannot see, so the astronomers added color to the image. They chose “exquisite gold because this light is so hot,” Dempsey said. “Making it these warm gold and oranges makes sense.”

What the image shows is gas heated to millions of degrees by the friction of ever-stronger gravity, scientists said.

And that gravity creates a funhouse effect where you see light from both behind the black hole and behind you as the light curves and circles around the black hole itself, said astronomer Avi Loeb, director of the Black Hole Initiative at Harvard. (The lead scientists in the discovery are from Harvard, but Loeb was not involved.)

The project cost $50 million to $60 million, with $26 million of that coming from the National Science Foundation.

Johns Hopkins astrophysicist Ethan Vishniac, who was not part of the discovery team but edits the journal where the research was published, pronounced the image “an amazing technical achievement” that “gives us a glimpse of gravity in its most extreme manifestation.”

He added: “Pictures from computer simulations can be very pretty, but there’s literally nothing like a picture of the real universe, however fuzzy and monochromatic.”

“It’s just seriously cool,” said John Kormendy, a University of Texas astronomer who wasn’t part of the discovery team. “To see the stuff going down the tubes, so to speak, to see it firsthand.

The mystique of black holes in the community is very substantial. That mystique is going to be made more real.”

There is a myth that says a black hole would rip you apart, but Loeb and Kormendy said the one pictured is so big, someone could fall into it and not be torn to pieces. But the person would never be seen from again.

Black holes are “like the walls of a prison. Once you cross it, you will never be able to get out and you will never be able to communicate,” Loeb said.

The first image is of a black hole in a galaxy called M87 that is about 53 million light years from Earth. One light year is 5.9 trillion miles, or 9.5 trillion kilometers. This black hole is about 6 billion times the mass of our sun.

The telescope data was gathered by the Event Horizon Telescope two years ago, but it took so long to complete the image because it was a massive undertaking, involving about 200 scientists, supercomputers and hundreds of terabytes of data delivered worldwide by plane.

The team looked at two supermassive black holes, the M87 and the one at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy. The one in our galaxy is closer but much smaller, so they both look the same size in the sky. But the more distant one was easier to take pictures of because it rotates more slowly.

“We’ve been hunting this for a long time,” Dempsey said. “We’ve been getting closer and closer with better technology.”

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