Google put a microphone in its Nest Secure hub—the control pad for its home security system—but didn’t tell consumers about it.
The public is already concerned about big tech companies listening in on private conversations and using microphones to capture user data. Facebook’s ad-targeting software regularly makes people believe they are being overheard by their smartphones. Others worry that smart speakers, such as Google Home or Amazon’s Alexa, could spy on consumers in their homes.
Now Google has to explain why it didn’t tell consumers about a microphone in one of its smart home products.
In early February, Google announced that its home security and alarm system Nest Secure would be getting an update. Users, the company said, could now enable its virtual-assistant technology, Google Assistant.
The problem: Nest users didn’t know a microphone existed on their security device to begin with.
The existence of a microphone on the Nest Guard, which is the alarm, keypad, and motion-sensor component in the Nest Secure offering, was never disclosed in any of the product material for the device.
Google has called the lack of disclosure an “error.”
In its statement, Google clarified that, “The microphone has never been on, and is only activated when users specifically enable the option.” The product page has since been updated to mention the microphone.
Google continued, “Security systems often use microphones to provide features that rely on sound sensing. We included the mic on the device so that we can potentially offer additional features to our users in the future, such as the ability to detect broken glass.”
Many reporters noted the climate of distrust, as data misuse has become a hot topic for consumers and government watchdogs worldwide.
In a timeline that doesn’t involve companies like Amazon or Twitter sharing voice calls or private messages with unintended recipients, perhaps this would be viewed more an unexpected but welcome feature. But it’s a privacy-conscious world now, where a company like Purism appeals to consumers by selling laptops and phones with hard kill switches for microphones and webcams. In this world, not disclosing that a security device monitoring your home contains a microphone is a massive faux-pas, to say the least.
The incident has recalled past Google crises.
It’s the latest in a series of privacy-related blunders for the company. This year alone, Google has been slapped with a $57 million fine in France over its opaque data consent policies. That was followed by outcries from smart home companies accusing it, and Amazon, of requesting non-stop hardware insights.
For Google, the revelation is particularly problematic and brings to mind previous privacy controversies, such as the 2010 incident in which the company acknowledged that its fleet of Street View cars “accidentally” collected personal data transmitted over consumers’ unsecured WiFi networks, including emails.
On Twitter, many expressed shock:
"The on-device microphone was never intended to be a secret and should have been listed in the tech specs. That was an error on our part," the spokesperson said.https://t.co/P8GswKzWyx
— Charlie Kindel (@ckindel) February 20, 2019
OOPS! I wonder how many other microphones I have unknowingly purchased https://t.co/1FxKUR9wZX
— Josh Elman (@joshelman) February 20, 2019
Oh, we just forgot to tell you that this piece of consumer electronics that you’ve purchased has a microphone that can listen to you and your family constantly… https://t.co/quvx51PuVo
— Robin Moss (@robinmoss86) February 20, 2019
Some called the company out for bad design:
— EFF (@EFF) February 19, 2019
Others were ready to write off the entire family of Nest products, including the Nest thermostat, though apparently only its Nest Secure product has the microphone.
Surprise! Your thermostat has an always-on microphone in it https://t.co/SLly6ag8Xn
— Mark O. Riedl (@mark_riedl) February 20, 2019
Some rejected Google’s explanation:
There is no way a product / marketing team simply forgot to tell consumers there was a microphone in Nest. I want to believe the best of Google,is but it's far too effective a company to simply "forget". https://t.co/WzXyrvsPGD
— Rashmi Sinha (@rashmi) February 20, 2019
— Patrick Moorhead (@PatrickMoorhead) February 20, 2019
Some noted that trust was broken, arguing consumers shouldn’t believe the latest statements:
If @Google's @Nest Secure devices really had secret microphones that they hid from consumers, those consumers should probably be forgiven if they don't trust the company's after-the-fact promises that it never spied on them. #DontBeEvil https://t.co/sZsFC31zdV via @csoonline
— Tom Zeller Jr. (@tomzellerjr) February 20, 2019
Others called for consumers to avoid smart home products entirely:
Stop putting this crap in your homes people.https://t.co/JHs7C7p5Kk
— Michael Krieger (@LibertyBlitz) February 20, 2019
And this is why I don’t trust @Google hardware. While it’s not per se bad to put a microphone into an iot device, doing so without informed consent displays a shocking lack of respect for client’s wants and needs.
— Ashton Kemerling (@ashton) February 19, 2019
What do you think of Google’s response, PR Daily readers?