Google admits ‘error’ in failing to tell consumers about Nest microphone

As purveyors of smart household appliances battle public fears about surveillance, an eavesdropping device certainly doesn’t help. Can Google reassure rattled customers?

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.

Business Insider reported:

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.”

The Verge reported:

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.

Forbes wrote:

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.

Engadget wrote:

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.

Business Insider reported:

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:

Some called the company out for bad design:

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.

Some rejected Google’s explanation:

Some noted that trust was broken, arguing consumers shouldn’t believe the latest statements:

Others called for consumers to avoid smart home products entirely:

What do you think of Google’s response, PR Daily readers?

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