Google Home

Google: violating home and public privacy

The reasons to install a home security system are obvious: you want to see what’s going on in your house when you’re not there, you want to deter would-be thieves, and in the unlikely event of a break-in, you want to be able to identify the perpetrators. And you just want to feel safe and secure.  

Last month, Google announced that users could now enable Google Assistant virtual assistant technology through their Nest cams. Instead of celebrating, though, users were irate, because Google inadvertently revealed that the cams had contained a built-in microphone the entire time. There was never any indication in the packaging, marketing materials, their website – anywhere – that a mic was part of the deal. 

 Imagine learning that the device you installed to keep you secure may have been secretly recording everything you said? Talk about a betrayal of trust! 

Google denied that the microphone had ever been a secret, but it’s tough to buy that; if it were a feature they intended you to know about, they would have bragged it up from the beginning.

Victim blaming

The Nest cams have been riddled with flaws: last month its indoor and outdoor cameras had a bug that caused the camera to behave as if someone were accessing the “live view” mode when they weren’t. There have been several cases of hackers taking control of the cams; in response, Google blamed the victim and said the fault lay with customers and their weak passwords. 

From smart homes to smart cities

Even if you don’t own any smart-home tech, you may not be safe from Google’s clutches; they’re piloting a project called Sidewalk Labs that has been plagued with privacy and ethics problems.  

Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company, wants to create a connected community in Toronto that will measure traffic flow, embed sensors so lights will go on and off more efficiently, track where and when people are out walking in order to plan when it’s best to clear snow, and so on. Again, instead of being thrilled by the advancement, many people are calling this project out as nothing but a big data mine. 

More information about the scale and scope of the project is emerging (they want more real estate and more money, basically) showing that Google’s aspirations for Toronto are far greater than they’d initially let on. This is in keeping with Google’s almost pathological style of hiding the big picture from the public, only releasing details in dribs and drabs. 

Refusal to do the bare minimum

Sidewalk Labs has already squandered a lot of goodwill, first by losing the support of former Ontario privacy commissioner Dr. Ann Cavoukian with their refusal to implement common-sense tech that would de-identify people from video surveillance installed in public places.  

Surveillance can increase convenience, but unless there are measures in place to protect people from the array of abuses that can arise, as we’re seeing in China, the data collection technology that goes along with surveillance is just waiting to be exploited.  

Whether it’s with Nest smart homes or Sidewalk Labs, Google needs to be clear about what they want from the consumer and the public, and be explicit in how they plan to put privacy at the forefront of all their products and projects. And we need hold them accountable for our own data privacy – if we don’t, no one will.  

Amazon: now in the business of tracking babies

The demand for smart products for the home is growing, and it was only a matter of time before the purveyors of smart tech turned their attention to a booming market: babies. Enter Hatch Baby, a smart nursery company launched by Amazon’s Alexa Fund

The company was up and running in 2014, by 2016 made its way to Shark Tank, and its offerings are now among the top 100 baby products (of more than 200,000) on the Amazon marketplace. Hatch Baby sells a smart changing pad that can track your baby’s weight; for older kids, there’s a smart nightlight/sound machine. These devices are connected to an app that lets parents control them and track their kids’ interaction with them.  

Amazon and Google are known for collecting and storing way too much data on their customers, and now that’s starting literally from birth.  

If the product testimonials are to be believed, these kid-tracking gadgets are not only life-changing, but necessary. Amazon promises “peace of mind.” Make no mistake: companies such as Google and Amazon are not in the business of helping parents raise their children. They’re in the business of securing market share, killing the competition, and dominating all our time and money.  

Surveillance and censorship

If you’ve seen Black Mirror, you probably recall the “Arkangel” episode in which a woman opts to have a chip implanted into her daughter that allows the mom to track all her movements, to see everything in her daughter’s line of sight, and to pixelate all images that could be disturbing to her child. While the chip technology is at first useful for ensuring the daughter’s safety, as she gets older, the daughter rebels against the constant tracking and surveillance. The mom is addicted to spying on her daughter, and the daughter despises her for it.

It’s easy for us to predict the disastrous implications when we’re watching this fictionalized narrative, so why can’t we foresee the ill effects of real-life tracking tech such as Hatch Baby? 

Resilience versus convenience

As our lives become more convenient and efficient, we become less resilient. With Amazon and Google devouring every aspect of our lives and selling us almost everything we buy, the small- and medium-sized businesses that are the backbone of the Canadian economy suffer. We’re setting ourselves up for economic failure.  

Amazon has been caught, according to a Bloomberg report, strong-arming other home smart-tech companies into letting their devices communicate with Alexa. Alexa collects data from smart light-switches about when a light has been turned on or off, so Amazon knows when the customer is home; smart TVs report what channels customers watch; smart locks let Amazon know whether the front door is bolted.  

They see you when you’re sleeping

This means Google and Amazon know when you’re asleep, when you’re awake, when you’re home, what shows you’re watching and when, the current temperature in your living room, when you’re eating, what you’re buying – everything. They demand this data without our informed consent, then appease us with the lie that it’s all for our convenience.  

Who is it all for?

Where Hatch Baby is concerned, parents need to put themselves in their children’s shoes and ask whether their kids’ lives being tracked is really to their benefit. We need to think about whether we need it – we've gotten by without this kind of “smart” tech till now, and we can continue to do so.  

Your smart speaker could be recording every stupid thing you say in your home!

Smart speakers are a dime a dozen these days, and one of the reasons they’re so cheap and accessible is that users give up their privacy simply by setting them up in their home. Convenience isn’t free!

An infamous incident: an Amazon customer in Germany requested access to his Alexa voice files and not only got his own recordings, but also 1,700 of those of another customer!

Check out our video below inspired by that data breach!

If you’re using any type of digital assistant, there are a few things you should do:

  • Don’t put smart devices in bedrooms or bathrooms. For obvious reasons.

  • Ideally, you should put your smart devices on a separate Wi-Fi network (i.e. your guest network).

  • Turn on auto-updates for all smart devices.

  • Secure your Amazon and Google accounts with multi-factor authentication.

  • Set a monthly calendar reminder to delete your old audio recordings from Amazon Echo and Google Home. Apple does this automatically for you with HomePod.

In general, think carefully about any connected device you put in your home.