Google Fesses Up To Hidden Microphone In Nest Home Security Platform

from the oh-and-by-the-way dept

Google this week found itself in luke warm water after Nest Secure users discovered that their home security system contained a "hidden" microphone the company had never publicly disclosed. The reveal came via a Google announcement sent to Nest customers earlier this month, informing them that their Nest Secure base stations (the motion detector and keypad at the heart of the system) would soon be updated to include Google Assistant functionality, essentially converting the hardware into another way to issue voice commands around the home:

"Starting today, we’re adding a feature to Nest Secure to do just that: the Google Assistant will be available on your Nest Guard, so you can ask it questions like, “Hey Google, do I need an umbrella today?” before you set your alarm and leave the house. Nest Guard is the brains of your Nest Secure; it contains a keypad and all the smarts that power the system. It’s usually placed in a spot with lots of traffic (like the front doorway) making it useful as you come and go."

On its face, this is certainly a welcome upgrade. Especially given the fact that we live in an era where the opposite often occurs, and companies have a habit of removing basic product functionality post sale, leaving you with less of a product, or in a few select instances no product at all. As such, that the Nest keypad for a home alarm system actually was upgraded to do more than users original thought is a good thing, at least superficially.

The problem: more privacy-conscious Nest owners weren't aware that the Nest home security base stations had a microphone in the first place, raising questions about whether Google was using the microphone for data collection and monetization in some capacity. Given the fact that we can't go more than twenty minutes before another major privacy scandal breaks, and the general regulatory and government response to most of these scandals has been a collective ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, the concerns are understandable.

Unlike some of its modern contemporaries, Google at least acknowledged that the company should have done a better job disclosing the microphone's existence simply by including it in the product hardware specs:

"On Tuesday, a Google representative told Business Insider the company had made an "error." "The on-device microphone was never intended to be a secret and should have been listed in the tech specs," the person said. "That was an error on our part."

And it does look like the company was also quick to update its product specs to make it clear the microphone exists moving forward. Still, Google should have been clearer from the start, and many went so far as to insist Google was lying to its customers:

I would probably note that if privacy is your top concern, a company like Google with a long history of hoovering up personal information probably shouldn't be your top home security choice in the first place. And there's a litany of other products in the home that deserve the same level of scrutiny. Americans are connecting poorly secured crap to their home networks at an alarming rate, from televisions (with microphones) that have paper mache grade security, to Barbie dolls that can be easily hacked and converted into covert listening devices.

While Google did the right thing here by coming clear, this episode also does a nice job illustrating the fact that whether we're talking about products getting better or worse, you don't really own the products you buy, and your agreement with the manufacturer in the firmware-update era can pivot on a dime, often with far less disclosure than we saw here, or none whatsoever.

Filed Under: google assistant, microphone, nest, privacy, specs, transparency
Companies: google


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Feb 2019 @ 4:49pm

    Isn't it spelled Papier Mache?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. icon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 21 Feb 2019 @ 5:28pm

    Full Disclosure is the issue

    Isn't the real question whether those that bought the Nest Home Security Platform would have done so if they knew it would be voice activated in the future?

    I wouldn't. I would view having that capability as being less secure, let alone thinking about how it might be used for surveillance. That it is potentially a part of Google Assistant would make my thoughts even more negative about the product.

    Given the warrants for other voice activated systems with connections to outside databases for criminal acts, one could conclude that in the future those warrants/subpoenas could be for civil acts, whether any other evidence exists or not.

    Privacy is a real thing, despite the direction big tech and the governments reluctance to protect privacy have gone recently. One can only hope that both of those groups have some consideration for us, rather than themselves, in the future. More than hope would mean that the electorate wakes up and does something about it. Then again, shiny seems to have more impact.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Feb 2019 @ 6:06pm

    American Airlines

    Also in the news today, American Airlines planes have cameras aimed at the passengers... but don't worry, they promise the cameras are turned off.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Feb 2019 @ 6:11pm

    Re: Full Disclosure is the issue

    Many of these products will be purchased, installed and forgotten for years. If there end up being vulnerabilities that others can exploit, knowing that there is a microphone would change this from being a potential purchase to one I would never get.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Feb 2019 @ 6:32pm

    Fine google $1.00 and let's move on.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Feb 2019 @ 6:35pm

    Re: American Airlines

    Doesn't China own American Airlines? Er, I thought.. but, maybe google does, is that right?Actually, it sounds more like a social experiment that fb would pull.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Feb 2019 @ 6:52pm

    Re:

    é

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Shane Grilla, 21 Feb 2019 @ 7:56pm

    The usual downplaying.

    Wasn't an oversight. Like the binary blob in 2015 activating microphone in Android, it's just another way for GOOGLE to SPY on you.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Glenn, 21 Feb 2019 @ 8:49pm

    Everyone--EVERYONE!--knew Google Assistant was coming to Nest. Did people think that it was going to be some psychic connection? Hmmm, is there some way to use voice commands with Google Assistant on Nest as with other Google devices... I know! a microphone! (Well, duh.)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Feb 2019 @ 12:36am

    Google

    Why the news is causing a stir – besides the obviously misleading nature of failing to disclose a microphone in a security device – is that it raises questions about how Google is handling all of the voice data it’s collecting through its devices

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Feb 2019 @ 1:04am

    Re:

    Thank-you google spokesperson. I didn't know about more google microphones that allow google to spy.. duh yourself.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Feb 2019 @ 1:08am

    Re: Re: Full Disclosure is the issue

    You're no fun!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Feb 2019 @ 1:11am

    Re: Re: Full Disclosure is the issue

    You wouldn't buy this setup for your secretary knowing you could possibly exploit this feature?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Feb 2019 @ 1:13am

    Re: Full Disclosure is the issue

    One can only hope.. and more than hope..

    Man, you really are a dreamer!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Feb 2019 @ 1:18am

    Re: Re: Full Disclosure is the issue

    One would expect.. google to show up at Techdirt all over these pages.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. icon
    Lord Lidl of Cheem (profile), 22 Feb 2019 @ 2:01am

    OK Google, open the door click

    Anyone feeling safer yet?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Feb 2019 @ 5:45am

    yay

    Do you remember when Goggle's motto was "Do no evil"? Pepperidge Farm remembers.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Feb 2019 @ 7:29am

    Priorities?

    The fact the Google Assistant beat out glass break detection as the first use of the microphone tells us everything we need to know about their priorities. It isn't home security.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Feb 2019 @ 8:03am

    I am shocked, SHOCKED I say, that Google has done yet another incredibly bogus thing. Simply shocked.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. icon
    Thad (profile), 22 Feb 2019 @ 8:05am

    Re: Re: Full Disclosure is the issue

    Google's generally pretty good about automatic security updates -- for the lifetime of the product.

    That last part is where the problem lies. Support periods aren't long enough to cover real-life use cases; in real life, people continue to use products well past the time their support expires. (I'm still using a Nexus 5 -- and that's a phone, a thing you expect to replace a lot more frequently than a home security system.)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Feb 2019 @ 8:14am

    Re:

    Destroying freedom should be something that no respectable government would allow another corporation to do to its citizens.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. icon
    Gene Cavanaugh (profile), 22 Feb 2019 @ 2:03pm

    Google Nest

    How can anyone argue the microphone was "secret" when Google announced a new use for it? Isn't that an obvious oversight? If it were an intentional act, why would they then tell us it is there?

    I think some people need to put their brains in gear before they engage their mouths.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23. identicon
    Bill Liggan, 3 Mar 2019 @ 7:16am

    Re: Full Disclosure is the issue

    "Another interesting question" is a much better opening than "Isn't the real question"

    On that subject, I guess a good measure would be to see who would return it for a full refund.

    Not an option

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Close

Add A Reply

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Insider Shop - Show Your Support!

Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.