Nest users got a surprise recently in the form of an update that enabled Google Assistant for devices they didn’t know had microphones, and now Google is saying that the microphones were never meant to be a secret, and that the company erred in failing to list them in the devices’ spec sheets. Specifically, the device in question is the Nest Guard system, which consists of the keypad, alarm, and motion sensor for Nest Protect.
According to Google, the microphone was put into the devices for the purpose of opening up feature possibilities in the future. A glass breakage sensor, voice controls, and other possibilities were alluded to, but the update with Google Assistant is the very first thing to ever utilize the microphones.
They were reportedly latent, never actually turning on unless users did it themselves. Since most consumers didn’t know the devices even had a microphone, it’s safe to say that most, if not all Nest Guard units are using their microphones for the first time as of this update, if Google is being honest about that.
This is far from the first time that Google’s behavior has raised privacy concerns in regards to hardware devices and their side functions. Thanks to Google’s pervasive collection of personal information for ad-serving purposes, and how its algorithm pieces that information together, it can sometimes seem like the company has been collecting info in ways it actually has not.
The company has been embroiled in all sorts of privacy shenanigans for quite some time, but this latest one is actually a double whammy of sorts because it involves Nest.Nest came to Google’s fold with promise, but quickly found itself in trouble. Its founder bailed not too long after, and its hardware business largely stagnated.
A recent renaissance, small in scale, is likely to be quite fragile. While this incident is unlikely to spell the end for Nest, it is definitely troubling for more than one reason. The privacy implications here are huge; Google says that the devices’ microphones are latent and have never activated before this update, but there’s seemingly no real way to prove that at this point.
A formal investigation into this matter is quite possible at this point, but seemingly not likely. Google has taken the time to clear up that the microphones were supposed to be disclosed to customers and had never been on before, after all. Even so, that’s just the company’s word. Even if Google is telling the truth, the fact that the devices had microphones the whole time mean they could potentially have been compromised by malicious third parties. Hacking is, after all, not too uncommon in the home automation space.
On a similar note, this development throws just about all hardware releases under Google’s name into question. If the Nest Guard system had a microphone nobody knew about, what other devices may have pieces that the company failed to disclose, intentionally or otherwise? Furthermore, what are the possible implications of those possible hidden devices, and how can an investigation be carried out in a practical and efficient manner? These are all questions that may simply be left unanswered, of course.