The Camera and Mic access toggles that Google added with Android 12 can offer piece of mind to privacy-conscious users and are typically more practical than completely removing those permissions for an app. Although they can be extremely tight by design, there are advantages to future versions of Android adding additional granularity.
Android’s microphone access toggle is disabled when set to Blocked, and no audio can be recorded unless it is switched to Available. Its software version of the actual microphone on/off switch featured on Nest Smart Speakers and Displays reflects how people are, at the very least legitimately, continuously anxious that their phones are listening to them.
Since the release of Android 12, I’ve used the toggles for the microphone and camera, and I’ve discovered that they accomplish what they were designed to do: provide peace of mind. However, they do obstruct one of current smartphones’ most advantageous advancements: on-device voice processing.
First off, speech typing with the Assistant does not function when the microphone is off because your Pixel cannot pick up any sound. Even while I regard my privacy to be very important, I find that to be a fairly uncomfortable trade-off.
With the introduction of the Pixel 6, the Assistant voice typing in Gboard operates solely on the smartphone. The text you speak on the companys words stays on your device rather than being transferred to Google servers. As someone who values privacy more than not, I’m actually okay with the type of listening where the recording remains local and there’s no possibility it will ever leave the device.
The Pixels Now Playing feature, which automatically recognizes the songs playing in the background, can be compared to this. What is picked up is compared to a local song database, and only manually initiated searches send results to the cloud.
Google Assistant is a more complex domain where exceptions might also be applicable. If enabled, your phone will constantly listen for the hotword before sending anything to the cloud, but only after hearing Hey Google. Today, the microphone toggle completely turns off Hey Google detection.
The new Google Assistant on the Pixel is so quick because it first handles commands locally before making any necessary network requests. The NGA’s ability to operate offline for device requests like turning on the lamp or turning up the volume is one of its advantages. If the resultant command is limited to operating a hardware function of your device, should the new Assistant be permitted to operate even when the mic access is disabled?
The toggle for the microphone should not apply to features that involve device processing. Another option would be to let end users actively opt out of such capabilities rather than making it the new default behavior in case doing so significantly reduces the privacy and/or trust angle of the microphone switch. How do you feel?
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