Discovery of Microphone in Google’s Nest Guard Prompts Backlash

The discovery of a microphone in Google’s Nest Guard product that was not listed in tech spec has been put down to an erroneous omission by Google, but it has also caused a backlash that escalated to the US Congress.

What Happened?

One of Google’s products is the Nest Secure product which is a home security system that operates using a phone app, alarm, keypad, and motion sensor with Google Assistant built in (which is the main hub), Nest Detect Sensors for doors and windows, and a tag which the homeowner taps on the main hub when they enter the house to disarm the system. Earlier this month, the addition of Google’s digital assistant to the product led to the surprise discovery that the main hub unit has always had a microphone installed in it, but the microphone was not mentioned on the technical specifications for the product.

The discovery of what appeared to be a “secret” microphone has, therefore, prompted anger and discussion among privacy and security advocates and commentators, concern from consumers, bad publicity for Google, and calls for action by a Senator, a Congressman, and many others.

Google Says ...

Google’s response to the discovery was simply to apologise for what was an “error” and oversight on its part for not listing the microphone in the tech spec for the system, and to stress that the microphone was not intended to be ‘secret’ and had not been used until the addition of the Google Assistant.

It has also been reported that Google has said that one of the reasons for the microphone’s inclusion had originally been to allow future functionality, for example, to detect breaking glass in the home.

Criticism

Google has faced anger and criticism from many different angles over the discovery of the microphone including:

Maryland Congressman John Delaney calling for privacy legislation to now be applied to a broad range of tech products. Mr Delaney also proposed that electronic tech products should have labelling on them like that on food products, so consumers can be quickly and easily alerted to any privacy and security implications.
Virginia Senator Mark Warner, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, calling for hearings with federal agencies and the U.S. Congress about the digital economy, and the smart home ecosystem.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) calling on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to request via an enforcement action, that Google divests of its Nest hardware products, and that Google disgorges any data that it may wrongfully have obtained from Nest customers.
What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Smart electronic products and devices are now in homes and businesses everywhere, but consumers and business owners should have the right to be clearly informed about the security and privacy implications of those products so that they can make an informed choice about whether to buy and operate them.

As some commentators have noted, the arguments that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than seek permission or that ‘it's in the fine print’, shouldn’t be acceptable privacy policies from tech companies. The idea of food packaging-style labelling on smart tech products to help inform about security and privacy implications may not be a bad one, and if the tech industry can’t regulate itself on this matter then more legislation to protect consumers and businesses seems likely.

This is a damaging story in terms of trust and reputation for Google, particularly in the US where the story has been given greater prominence and may cause consumers to think twice about the kinds of smart products that they let into their homes and businesses.

Posted by Andrew Sewell,

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