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Google takes a dangerous stride from your head to your home

google-purchases-nest-970x0-825x550By Simon Davies

Odds are that the next big swoon for tech journalists will be the Internet enabled smart home, whose clever interconnected devices could eventually outwit even the most street-smart homeowner.

So when market leader Nest Labs this week announced that it was opening up its “conscious home” platform to developers, most media commentators were so busy imagining a hands-free future of automated flower vases they forgot to notice that Google was first in line to grab the data. They also failed to notice that the move was a blatant breach of a commitment earlier this year by Nest’s founders not to do such a thing.

Nest and Google: playing fast and loose with public trust

Nest and Google: playing fast and loose with public trust

Nest’s core competence is the development of smart Internet enabled thermostats, sensors and alarms, a technology that Google soon realized could become a platform for what has long been known as the “Internet of Things”. It then bought the company in February this year for a cool $3.2 billion, sparking speculation that Nest would hand over customer data to its new boss – data that includes, for example, the real-time movement and location of people in the home.

“No way” responded Nest’s co-founder, Tony Fadell. “Our privacy policy clearly limits the use of customer information to providing and improving Nest’s products and services. We’ve always taken privacy seriously and this will not change.”

This clear commitment was enough to conditionally satisfy even the likes of Tech Crunch, which concluded:

It’s interesting because the immediately apparent upside of Google acquiring Nest would be the data it stands to gain access to. Still, the quote above indicates that it won’t use data from its devices any differently than it does now, and Nest will continue to operate as a separate entity.

Now, less than six months on, Nest has disclosed that it will go back on its word and share customer data with Google, subject to vague conditions such as ”opt in”.

No safeguard, however, can provide true protection from Google’s data amalgamation frenzy which has enabled the linking of all the company’s products and services. Historically, “opt in” isn’t a concept that goes down too well in Google’s HQ (evidenced for example by the company’s recent Shared Endorsements policy that strong-armed the entire YouTube user population to identify itself).

Historically, “opt in” isn’t a concept that goes down too well in Google’s HQ (evidenced for example by the company’s recent Shared Endorsements policy that strong-armed the entire YouTube user population to identify itself).

In light of Google’s prime directive to amalgamate and link all data, privacy groups are now on alert because of the risk of combing Nest’s data with other sensitive information on activity in the home.

This worrying scenario has just unfurled. Nest announced last week that it will buy video-surveillance startup Dropcam for $555 million, bringing under Google’s wing real-time video of activities inside the homes of Dropcam users.

The alliance will allow users to set the temperature of their homes with voice commands to a Google mobile app. It will also allow Google’s personal digital assistant, Google Now, to set the home temperature automatically when it detects, using a smartphone’s location-tracking abilities, that a user is returning home.

Some householders may view this as a valuable facility, but its true value will be for police and security agencies which for the first time will be able to use their powers to access data of unprecedented sensitivity.

This isn’t to say that good things can’t emerge from the new smart home platforms. Whirlpool and Nest, for example, have worked together for more than year to develop a Whirlpool clothes dryer and a Nest thermostat to work in combination to conserve energy and save money. The thermostat detects a local utility’s peak load times, when electricity is most expensive. It sends a signal to the dryer to run on a cooler, slower drying cycle at those times.

Nonetheless, regardless of whether an opt-in could be made to work. Nest should be ashamed of itself for lying to its users and breaching a commitment that most people naively believed.

Google, in turn, should be equally ashamed over its active role in this disgraceful episode. During a crisis of faith over the privacy of online services, this is not a moment to be playing fast and loose with the public’s uncertain faith in the digital realm.