Technology companies, lawmakers, privacy advocates, and everyday consumers likely disagree about exactly how a company should go about collecting user data. But, following a trust-shattering move by Google last month regarding its Nest Secure product, consensus on one issue has emerged: Companies shouldn’t ship products that can surreptitiously spy on users.
Failing to disclose that a product can collect information from users in ways they couldn’t have reasonably expected is bad form. It invades privacy, breaks trust, and robs consumers of the ability to make informed choices.
While collecting data on users is nearly inevitable in today’s corporate world, secret, undisclosed, or unpredictable data collection—or data collection abilities—is another problem.
A smart-home speaker shouldn’t be secretly hiding a video camera. A secure messaging platform shouldn’t have a government-operated backdoor. And a home security hub that controls an alarm, keypad, and motion detector shouldn’t include a clandestine microphone feature—especially one that was never announced to customers.
And yet, that is precisely what Google’s home security product includes.
Google fumbles once again
Last month, Google announced that its Nest Secure would be updated to work with Google Assistant software. Following the update, users could simply utter “Hey Google” to access voice controls on the product line-up’s “Nest Guard” device.
The main problem, though, is that Google never told users that its product had an internal microphone to begin with. Nowhere inside the Nest Guard’s hardware specs, or in its marketing materials, could users find evidence of an installed microphone.
When Business Insider broke the news, Google fumbled ownership of the problem: “The on-device microphone was never intended to be a secret and should have been listed in the tech specs,” a Google spokesperson said. “That was an error on our part.”
Customers, academics, and privacy advocates balked at this explanation.
“This is deliberately misleading and lying to your customers about your product,” wrote Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at Electronic Frontier Foundation.
“Oops! We neglected to mention we’re recording everything you do while fronting as a security device,” wrote Scott Galloway, professor of marketing at the New York University Stern School of Business.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) spoke in harsher terms: Google’s disclosure failure wasn’t just bad corporate behavior, it was downright criminal.
“It is a federal crime to intercept private communications or to plant a listening device in a private residence,” EPIC said in a statement. In a letter, the organization urged the Federal Trade Commission to take “enforcement action” against Google, with the hope of eventually separating Nest from its parent. (Google purchased Nest in 2014 for $3.2 billion.)
Days later, the US government stepped in. The Senate Select Committee on Commerce sent a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, demanding answers about the company’s disclosure failure. Whether Google was actually recording voice data didn’t matter, the senators said, because hackers could still have taken advantage of the microphone’s capability.
“As consumer technology becomes ever more advanced, it is essential that consumers know the capabilities of the devices they are bringing into their homes so they can make informed choices,” the letter said.
This isn’t just about user data
Collecting user data is essential to today’s technology companies. It powers Yelp recommendations based on a user’s location, product recommendations based on an Amazon user’s prior purchases, and search results based on a Google user’s history. Collecting user data also helps companies find bugs, patch software, and retool their products to their users’ needs.
But some of that data collection is visible to the user. And when it isn’t, it can at least be learned by savvy consumers who research privacy policies, read tech specs, and compare similar products. Other home security devices, for example, advertise the ability to trigger alarms at the sound of broken windows—a functionality that demands a working microphone.
Google’s failure to disclose its microphone prevented even the most privacy-conscious consumers from knowing what they were getting in the box. It is nearly the exact opposite approach that rival home speaker maker Sonos took when it installed a microphone in its own device.
Sonos does it better
In 2017, Sonos revealed that its newest line of products would eventually integrate with voice-controlled smart assistants. The company opted for transparency.
While this function has upset some Sonos users who want to turn off the microphone light, the company hasn’t budged.
A Sonos spokesperson said the company values its customers’ privacy because it understands that people are bringing Sonos products into their homes. Adding a voice assistant to those products, the spokesperson said, resulted in Sonos taking a transparent and plain-spoken approach.
Now compare this approach to Google’s.
Consumers purchased a product that they trusted—quite ironically—with the security of their homes, only to realize that, by purchasing the product itself, their personal lives could have become less secure. This isn’t just a company failing to disclose the truth about its products. It’s a company failing to respect the privacy of its users.
A microphone in a home security product may well be a useful feature that many consumers will not only endure but embrace. In fact, internal microphones are available in many competitor products today, proving their popularity. But a secret microphone installed without user knowledge instantly erodes trust.
As we showed in our recent data privacy report, users care a great deal about protecting their personal information online and take many steps to secure it. To win over their trust, businesses need to responsibly disclose features included in their services and products—especially those that impact the security and privacy of their customers’ lives. Transparency is key to establishing and maintaining trust online.