Full disclosure – I’ve long been a fan of many of Google’s services. I’ve used Gmail since the first beta, rely on Google search all day long, use a Pixel as my smartphone and listen to music all day long through their music service. It pains me when my favorite tech brands make poor choices, and unfortunately, Googles leadership seem to have forgotten their founders original scree, “Don’t be evil,” in favor of behaving like any profit-driven, ethically-ambiguous megacorp. The latest scandal comes from one of Google’s recent tech acquisitions in the form of a failure to disclose the presence of microphones in the Nest Secure home devices. Now, the presence of microphones in security devices shouldn’t come as a surprise, but Google’s failure to mention it in any documentation is a glaring breach of trust on their part.
What this means for you
When I first heard this news, I though to myself, “Well duh, of course these things have microphones. They are security monitoring devices,” and thought that, once again, naive consumers were purchasing and installing the devices without RTFM (“reading the fine manual” except substitute your own f-word). But no, Google (and Nest) didn’t actually document the presence of a microphone at all until it recently revealed that the Google Assistant technology could now be used on the Nest Secure device which, oh by the way, uses voice control…which, erm, requires a microphone…that is already on the device. According to Google, the microphone was disabled by default and can only be activated when the user specifically enables it. Which doesn’t make the whole failure to disclose any better, because how do we know it wasn’t enabled, and why should we trust them to be telling the truth now?
Unfortunately for you, even if you were being a careful consumer and reading the fine manual (or label, or reviews, etc.) the only way you would have known there was a microphone in the device would have been to dismantle it yourself, but why would you do that because the product documentation clearly lists the device’s specs, doesn’t it? Does this sound familiar? Like some other technology megacorp abusing its users’ trust? Is it going to take dragging these companies in front of Congress to get them stop being so lackadaisical with our privacy? Well, before we do that, let’s make sure we elect Congress critters that know iPhones aren’t made by Google.
For those of us old enough to remember the cartoon, I’m willing to bet that at least a few of us are still holding out hope for a Jetson’s future, complete with personal jetpacks, flying cars and fully automated homes. We’re getting closer on the car and jetpack thing, but it seems we have some way to go on the home automation, despite it being around in some form for decades now. Samsung’s SmartThings platform has been around for a few years now and the continuing permeation of mobile devices across all aspects of our daily lives has led to some amazingly convenient but woefully insecure home automation systems. Researchers at University of Michigan have demonstrated several security vulnerabilities in internet-connected door locks, fire alarms and lighting systems to name a few. At the moment, using the Internet of Things to upgrade your home may actually downgrade your security.
What this means for you:
Despite the technology being available for several years, most Americans have only just begun to discover a small glimmer of a Jetson-esque future. This is due to a combination of factors that include price, complexity and a (justifiable) lack of trust in remote control devices to secure their most prized (and pricey) investments. Even Silicon Valley darling Nest (now owned by Alphabet née Google) suffered multiple PR setbacks via highly-publicized bugs, failed hardware and canceled products. As such, these products and others like Samsung’s SmartThings are only just starting to realize enough critical mass in the market to capture the attention of security researchers. For now, the University of Michigan researchers are cautioning against using the SmartThings platform wherever security is a paramount concern. I don’t know about you, but as far as this homeowner and business-owner is concerned, my house and office can stay dumb for the moment. I already have problems with phones that are too smart for their own good.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net