Tutanota Interviews Tim Verheyden, the Journalist Who Broke the Story on Google Employees Listening to People's Audio Recordings

Google employees listen to you, but the issue of "ghost workers" transcends Google. 

Investigative journalist Tim Verheyden, who broke the story on how Google employees listen to people’s audio recordings, explains in an interview how he got hold of the story, why he is now using the encrypted contact form Secure Connect by Tutanota and why the growing number of "ghost workers" in and around Silicon Valley is becoming a big issue in Tech.

Tutanota: Tim, you have broken a great story on VRT News about how employees of Google subcontractors listen to our conversations when using devices such as Google Home. What was that story about? What was the privacy violation?

Tim Verheyden: Google provides a range of information on privacy—and data gathering. In this particular case, Google says on audio gathering that it can save your audio to learn the sound of your voice, learn how we say phrases and words, recognize when we say "Ok Google" to improve speech recognition. Google does not speak about the human interaction in the chain of training the AI on speech recognition. For some experts, this is a violation of the new GDPR law.

Tutanota: How did the employee of the Google subcontractor who leaked the story get in touch with you?

Tim: By email, he shared his thoughts on an article we wrote about Alexa (Amazon) after Bloomberg broke the news about humans listening.

Tutanota: Tutanota has recently launched Secure Connect, and you had added this encrypted contact form to your website a few weeks ago. What do you expect from Secure Connect?

Tim: I hope it will encourage people with a story to get in contact. It does not always need to be a whitsleblower story. Because of security concerns—and other reasons—people are sometimes reluctant to contact a journalist. I hope Secure Connect will help build trust in relationships with journalists.

Tutanota: More and more journalists are offering Secure Connect so that whistleblowers can drop important information or get in touch with investigative journalists confidentially. Why do you believe a secure communication channel is important?

Tim: Secure communication through other channels than, for example, regular emailing, is becoming increasingly important since we are reading so many stories on open backdoors in massively used applications to communicate. Despite security measurements, third parties find their way to hack into communication channels; big companies are not always that trustworthy when it comes to sharing data, and so on. I honestly believe that Big Tech is not always as evil as described, but there are too many cases and examples that are raising eyebrows. Using the mainstream internet should not be equal to giving all your data away.

Tutanota: In general, how do our societies appreciate whistleblowers?

Tim: When it comes to tech, people don't always realize how important whisteblowers are. Technology is crucial for the future, but we are now experiencing a recession when it comes to trust in Big Tech. That's a shame, because in its core, technology is so great. Besides that, data is so abstract, people do not always realize the importance of working on the purity of technology today, so we can use it in the future, and our data and everything we are and have online is secure and safe.

Tutanota: The audio snippets the whistleblower provided contained, in parts, very sensitive information. What should Google do differently to protect users' privacy?

Tim: Google already takes measurements like securing the accounts the snippets are coming from. But the issue transcends Google. Thousands of so called "ghost workers" are doing tasks for so many tech companies in and around Silicon Valley and all over the world. Like content moderators for Facebook, for example. Who is controlling these subcontractors? What are the guidelines? What about working conditions? This is relatively new work that asks for more transparency since these companies are working with our data.

Tutanota: As an investigative journalist, you probably know how to protect your data. Do you have any recommendations for people who want to protect their privacy online?

Tim: Honestly, I could use some tips too. I'm a journalist, not a tech wizard, focusing on the influence from technology on all of us. Don't ask me anything about open source, etc. :) 

Key points are the following. For sensitive documents, I back up on a hard disk. Mailing, I do through secure email like Tutanota. Browsing is incognito. And I have a few more tips I can't tell here because it concerns social media, but that is a good start. You guys should give me tips!

Tutanota: Sure, given our background, we can offer tips on email security and how to prevent email phishing. You can get in-depth guides for investigative journalists from The Freedom of the Press Foundation or from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Thank you, Tim, for the interesting interview!

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