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Nest owners: Did you drink the Google Kool-Aid or are you concerned about privacy?

Jan 15, 20146 mins
Data and Information SecurityMicrosoftSecurity

Nest Labs said it won't share data with Google, but not privacy and security advocates believe that. Here's what they say...

You likely had to be under a rock to not know about Google’s plan to pay $3.2 billion for Nest Labs, which makes smart internet-connected thermostats and smoke alarms. Some folks are mighty concerned with Google having even more access into their lives, into their home activity, hoovering up data and chiseling away at their privacy.

On ZDNet, Larry Dignan advised that we stop to consider how much Google is invading our lives.

Consider the moving parts:

  • Google has mobile access via your smartphones and various apps on multiple platforms.
  • Google has multiple ways into your living room via Android and Chromecast, a streaming TV gadget, as well as tablets and PCs.
  • The company had tried to monitor energy usage with utilities, but scrapped the plan in 2011.
  • Google’s Android will increasingly be in your car.
  • And Google is working the robot market.

Back in December, Google’s engineering director Scott Huffman shared his vision of the future; it included “microphones hanging from the ceiling“. . . the better to take advantage of “OK Google.”

You wouldn’t need to check your phone for appointment details as Huffman said of ceiling microphones, “Like a great personal assistant, it will interrupt you and say ‘you’ve got to leave now’. It will bring you the information you want.” He added, “I could ask my Google ‘assistant’ where we should have lunch, that serves French food and isn’t too expensive? Google will go ‘Ok, we’ll go to that place’ and when I get in my car it should already be navigating to that restaurant. We’re really excited by the idea of multiple devices being able to talk to each other.”

Could acquiring Nest be the first step to making Google-connected “ceiling microphones” a reality? Forrester Research’s Frank Gillett stated, “This is about Google Now and helping get Google Now stronger at the right time.”

After Google’s announcement to gobble up Nest, Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, said:

“Consumers should insist Google start making their mortgage or rent payments, given all the data the company plans to sweep up from everyone’s homes. A few billion is digital chump change for the key to unlock more of our personal information. By linking together our mobile, video, search, while driving, in-store and now at-home data, Google wants to become an invisible but all seeing new member of the family.”

 “Will Nest customer data be shared with Google?” According to Nest:

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.

Not everyone is swallowing the Google Kool-Aid to believe that. Although it wasn’t an easy decision for a “genuine geek,” Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, plans to return his Nest thermostat. He told the Los Angeles Times, “Google doesn’t respect boundaries.” He also pointed out Google’s privacy policy change, which allowed Big Brother Google to consolidate data from users across more than 60 services.

Another Nest FAQ states: “Will Nest and Google products work with each other? Nest’s product line obviously caught the attention of Google and I’m betting that there’s a lot of cool stuff we could do together, but nothing to share today.”

That’s not necessarily comforting. Nest has a ton of data. Nest Protect smoke detector, for example, has been called an “electronic All-Seeing Eye” that is equipped with “a smoke sensor, a carbon monoxide sensor, a heat sensor, a light sensor, ultrasonic sensors and activity sensors. It can be both controlled and monitored by your smart phone through Wi-Fi.” The post was actually a jab at privacy advocates by The Kernel’s science correspondent Greg Stevens, who added, “My dear privacy enthusiast: activity sensors? Storing movement data in order to learn what normal movements in the room are? Transmitting information about every light, sound and movement in your house via Wi-Fi to your phone… and who knows where else?”

“Will the companies have the ethical compass to restrain themselves from taking all of this data and combining it with all the other data Google has?” asked Rebecca Herold, information privacy, security and compliance consultant and president of Rebecca Herold & Associates. “Or will they use it and share it for reasons that have nothing to do with and are far beyond any stretch of the imagination that could be linked to, the devices’ original purposes?” She added, “Google probably has more data about everyone’s online and online-connected activities than any other entity, possibly including the NSA.”

Meanwhile Jeff Moss, aka @thedarktangent, founder of the Black Hat and Def Con hacker conferences, suggested that it is time to build a Tor network for smart devices. Although @semibogan nixed the idea because “then your thermostat will just keep on repeating f**king CAPTCHA requests,” @GammaCounter suggested it be called the “Fried Onion.”

“Google appears dissatisfied with controlling millions of people’s communications and internet experience,” and now wants “access to the inside of our homes.” Privacy SOS pointed to Google’s Wi-Spy position in a December 2013 motion to dismiss a class action lawsuit. “In short: Google argues that it has the right to collect your most sensitive data, as long as it flows across an open WiFi network. Now do you want to let this company inside your home?”

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.