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.
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.