There is little doubt that Nest brought about the modern smarthome. Sure, there were companies making products in this category for decades, but it wasn't until the Nest thermostat that the general consumer was truly made aware of the idea. However, between the release of the first Nest product and today, a lot of things have changed. Those changes began when the company was purchased by Google for $3.2 billion in 2014. As Google reorganized time and again, the brand got moved around, first out of Google and then back inside.
In addition to the constant shift in focus outside of the company, Nest has branched out from its thermostat roots into other smarthome products, including a home security hub called Nest Guard. This hub connects a number of other Nest security products together and acts as the audible alarm for the entire system. This week, Google announced that a new feature would be added to the Guard: Google Assistant. With this added feature, you can now speak directly to the Guard and use any of the Google Assistant's features.
There's only one problem with this feature: how can it work? According to all of the documentation for the product says nothing about the device having a microphone. So, how are you supposed to be able to speak into it? Has Google figured out some way to listen to audio without a microphone? As it turns out, it's not nearly as cool as that. In fact, the Guard has had a microphone built-in all of this time, but Google never disclosed it.
For a company with a history of privacy violations, the idea that they placed connected microphones into the homes of unsuspecting consumers is beyond concerning. In response to criticism, Nest tweeted,
We included a microphone in the Nest Guard with features such as the Google Assistant in mind.
It has not been used up to this point, and you can enable or disable it at any time using the Nest app.
It's a clever sidestep of the issue, however, never addressing the transparency issues. The initial inclusion, as well as the lack of transparency even with customers who are concerned today, is going to create a lot of problems for Nest and Google. First, of course, is the loss of trust from consumers. If Google wants to be able to continue to grow its Assistant business, consumers have to trust that they are not being taken advantage of. However, more importantly, is the legal ramifications.
It is possible that the inclusion of the microphone without including it on the product packaging or documentation for 15 months could be legally identified as spy technology. That could place charges as high as espionage on the company and the employees involved in releasing the product. In most countries, including the US, espionage is classified as treason. Initial reports may have viewed this as an inconvenience for Google's smarthome ambitions, the reality is farmore dangerous for a lot of people at Google and Nest.