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Don't let Google and Nest off the hook for their hidden mic

Sometime in California in the past year or two, somewhere between Palo Alto and Mountain View as the Nest Secure security system was being developed, the following almost assuredly was uttered:

"Shouldn't we list that the Nest Guard has a microphone built into it?" And someone else replied "Nah. We're not even using it for anything."

And in February 2019, as Nest and Google prepared to announce that the Nest Guard keypad would gain the ability to serve as a portal for Google Assistant — that is, you can speak to it and it'll perform actions via Google's voice assistant — someone else almost certainly said: "You know, we never did mention that the Nest Guard has a microphone. Maybe we should do a little bit of a mea culpa just to head off the inevitable pitchforks because, ya know, it's 2019 and privacy and security are on everyone's minds and we kinda blew it here."

And someone else said, "How about we just kinda bury it at the bottom of a blog post?"

At no point before that Feb. 4 post announcing that Google Assistant was coming to the Nest Guard did Nest or Google inform anyone that the Nest Guard has had a built-in microphone all this time. It's not in the user manual. It wasn't listed on the specs page on the Nest website. (Though that's since been updated.)

I've used Nest Secure for more than a year now. It's a great DIY home security system. But what Nest and Google did (or didn't do) amounts to technological malpractice and should not be downplayed.

Here's what Nest Product Specialist Erick Low wrote in Google's blog post announcing the new feature on Feb. 4:

Let's face it: getting out the door can be hectic sometimes. Between rushing to beat the traffic, making sure you're dressed for the weather and running through your to-do list, there's a lot to juggle—and we could all use a little assistance streamlining our routines.Starting today, we're adding a feature to Nest Secure to do just that: the Google Assistant will be available on your Nest Guard, so you can ask it questions like, "Hey Google, do I need an umbrella today?" before you set your alarm and leave the house. Nest Guard is the brains of your Nest Secure; it contains a keypad and all the smarts that power the system. It's usually placed in a spot with lots of traffic (like the front doorway) making it useful as you come and go.

Toward the end of the post we did get the following paragraph:

The Google Assistant on Nest Guard is an opt-in feature, and as the feature becomes available to our users, they'll receive an email with instructions on how to enable the feature and turn on the microphone in the Nest app. Nest Guard does have one on-device microphone that is not enabled by default.

So there's that.

There's a serious trust problem when it comes to tech these days. That's not new, and I'm not sure it's gotten any better. We have to be able to trust these companies to do the right thing. But time and time again they prove us wrong in increasingly dumb and confounding ways.

And I wouldn't bet against this case just being a matter of poor internal communication. It wouldn't the first time, and it certainly won't be the last.

Saying 'sorry' doesn't really cut it here — but what other recourse is there?

But that's not an excuse in 2019. It can't be an excuse in 2019. Not at a company as big and as powerful and as important as Google, and by extension, Nest. Not as a company that specializes in products that literally watch over the most intimate parts of our homes and our lives every single day. The word "inexcusable" just doesn't cut it. And the lack of outrage only goes to show just how numb we are to the companies we rely on every day abusing our trust, whether it's on purpose, or by accident. Or by negligence.

What to do about it? Somewhere in California a class-action lawyer is getting revved up. Someone is preparing a lawsuit. Someone will suggest that Google should be fined, and that we should all take our Nest Secure systems and toss 'em in the garbage.

None of that will be enough, and I honestly don't have a better answer.

But I do know that accidentally forgetting to mention that a product has a microphone — and forgetting to mention it for something like a year and a half — isn't something Google and Nest should get to shrug off.

96 Comments
  • Will people let it off the hook, some wont But the vast majority honestly probably doesn't care.
    And Google knows it
  • Exactly. Apathy is fashionable.
  • No, you just pick your battles. This is a black eye for Google and the arm waving and privacy fear mongers will be played to in the media enough. No need for reasonable people to get outraged over a low-medium sized issue over a microphone that wasn't even enabled. Its just not compelling or threatening in any way.
  • Indeed, a huge black eye too it is!
  • Not really. Its only a big deal to people who want it to be a big deal. Mostly just the fear mongers and arm waivers.
  • Do arm waivers waive their right to wave an arm?
  • It was NEVER meant to be a secret
  • I wouldn't say it is fashionable. But is there proof the mic was used? Right now, people are pissed that it wasn't disclosed, not that it wasn't used. Honestly, who in their right mind would think a Google product would not have a microphone, I thing the nest thermostat has one as well. This is a little tinfoil hat behavior to me. I mean 'hear' is a great new feature that people can 'opt' into, if not, the mic stays dead. Also, who's to say that the mic won't be used to make 911 calls, as you can make those calls from your Google Home.
  • Is there proof is wasn't used should be the question?
    The loud voices and "arm waivers" of the USA are the reasons we have a right to privacy here. Not all places in the world can say that, some will even argue that we shouldn't expect a right to privacy in a post 9/11 world. They would be wrong!!
  • Arm waivers and fear mongers also create racism and general bigotry.
  • Most of the time, rights of privacy is only pertains to the government. Commercialism, and our fondness of it separates the rights of privacy from products you buy. If there is no proof of the mics ever listening before disclosure this is all for naught. When you bring a product into your home, you enter into a relationship with the company that makes it. The only repercussions as if what evidence we have now is buyers remorse. If you feel that strongly about it, (if you actually have the device in question), write Google. If not, sit back and see what happens.
  • Let them off the hook for future-proofing your device? Let them off the hook for offering a meaningful upgrade that you don't have to pay full retail price for year after year and then throw your Nest Guard 1.0 into the landfill? Yeah let's hold them accountable.
  • Yes, let's do exactly that. You don't get to not disclose crap like this. I don't care how much it brings to your life.
  • Why? What are you so afraid of? Seriously, you all talk about how awful this is, what exactly is going to happen? Google is not trying to hide microphones in your house to spy on you, they would lose everything if they were caught doing that. The only thing on this planet Google has to be afraid of is missing profits, and if they did anything that shady they would lose everything.
  • THIS! I love how people get so afraid that someone is listening.. like they give a crap about the millions of people and random conversations that hold no context or hold no value. Get over it
  • NO!! Google is not trying to hide microphones in people's homes....
    They've already proven they can and WILL!!!!!
  • With every post you make less sense than the one prior. Where is your evidence? You are just a nutjob.
  • All they had to was list it in the spec sheet. What don't you understand? It doesn't matter what YOU personally think... It's how it's perceived by media and how bad it looks on Google. This WILL linger for a long time and it didn't have to happen... All it would have taken it's a freaking bullet line on the spec sheet
  • Did none of the teardown sites notice this?
  • Someone did, it's not like Google stepped up and owned it...
  • *citation needed please
  • Sounds like a conspiracy theory to me. Google couldn't possibly hope that nobody would find out as these devices regularly get torn apart and the findings posted online. Modern gadgets often contain sensors that are not used, at least initially and I can imagine lots of good reasons that a device like this might benefit from a microphone.
  • People beg and plead for tech they bought to get meaningful updates after purchase. If the mic truly is deactivated and can only be activated by the user by choice, this is a pretty meaningful update. Adding voice assist to a device that didn’t previously have it is unheard of. Maybe they didn’t announce it because they didn’t know if it would go live? Google never seems to know what something will be until it is. If the mic is truly and only controlled by the user, this seems like much ado about nothing. Go look at all the tech we’ve all bought that could have been improved with basic firmware updates that never was. This is the exact opposite.
  • I understand what you're saying. We have no recourse. A fine, a lawsuit, a boycott, etc will do absolutely nothing. If they weren't listening, who really cares? No one but privacy idealists. Privacy is done. I just assume anything I say or do is known because it likely is. It's the cost of having the type of tech we have available to us.
  • I guess apathy is one approach...
  • Why are you fear mongering? If you want to make a difference you need to understand the entire grey scale, not just your black crayons.
  • I'm not apathetic. I just think there's nothing we can do about it. Just live your life like you have no privacy, because you don't have it.
  • I ain't mad. It turns out it was a good thing they put the microphone on there. Would you rather have Ring instead? Not me.
  • Shortly after launch, folks on the Nest forums were asking for glass break detection functionality for Nest Secure. At that time, Nest reps stated that this might be possible in the future via the Nest Guard. At that point, I just assumed that the Guard had a microphone on board.
  • Meh. This article comes off as alarmist and reactionary to me. I know it's all the fad to freak out about these things nowadays. But for me, I don't see the big deal. If they weren't DOING ANYTHING with it and perhaps planned to activate it with consent later, really who cares? If they HAD recorded things, kept things, etc and didn't tell us until now, then THAT would be a thing. This is not a thing. Not for me anyway. This rings of one of these tech echo chamber stories, which get forwarded in tech circles, but where everyone else shrugs and moves forward. Oh well, YMMV I guess.
  • People like you scare me and there are so many, your a sheep!
  • He is the sheep? You are waiving your arms around and can't even explain what you are afraid of. Probably should think it through champ.
  • I may be many things, a sheep is not one of of them I assure you!
  • Having read your frantic and broken fear mongering I am afraid you are right. You are a flat earther, anti-vaxxing, nutjob!
  • I like my solution the best, just don't invite any of these devices into your home. Never had one, most likely never will.
  • I can't think of a less constructive statement. Even my pointless reply to you is building more potential to convey some purpose.
  • How so, he is right on the money. If you don't want snooping into your home by the tech companies, don't use these products. They all do it even if they say they don't. I think it's a very constructive comment. I think Nest / google should be taken to task on this one. They should have said from the beginning that it included a microphone for future support.
  • it doesn't solve the problem. it avoids the problem. there's nothing constructive about that. it's ridiculous to assume enough people would ever follow that advice that the companies would change their behavior. it's not technically wrong, but its simply not a realistic solution. it's more of a, "its not my problem," and just lets it happen to everyone else. That's why its not constructive. Ignoring problems is not solving them.
  • Your comments don't solve the problem either though. "Expose yourself to the problem" is not a solution.
  • It's not my problem, why would I want to solve it? I don't care what you do, or do not do. I elect to keep my cyber footprint light, it's not advice, it's the way I conduct myself. And yes it is a solution, it works.
  • Yes, I agree your reply is pointless.
  • He's not wrong though. You're just saying, "let other people find the solution and i'll reap the benefits later." Stick your head in the sand for now (cause there's a better than not chance that you own an android so are already failed at your genius plan of avoiding technology), but if we can't solve the problem, you'll just run into it later anyway. If you don't run into it later, its because we solved it without your help. In either scenario, you were useless and provided not constructive thought. Unless you actually believe enough people would ever not buy mobile phones again or security devices for their home.
  • I'm not avoiding technology, I'm limiting my exposure while utilizing technology in a responsible manner. You don't get it, I don't care if other people do or do not find a solution, I don't want any part of it. You want my solution...DON'T BUY IT, IT WORKS. You you don't want companies or people knowing about your private life, then don't invite them into your homes...it's not hard. Ust because it exists doesn't mean you have to get it.
  • Do you have a laptop you ever walk away from left open? A camera with mic connected to a desktop computer perhaps? A gaming console with a camera and mic connected? A cell phone with camera and microphone? Go out in public you ever see traffic cameras, business security cameras? Go into a convenience store, liquor store or bank???
    Big brother is here..... And he's everywhere!!!!!
  • Hey guys! BE SCARED. Zedd says the boogeyman is going to get us! Big Brother is going to know what cereal we eat!!!
  • The boogyman isn't coming anymore, it's here already in the form of our jerk & chief or havnt you noticed that either?
  • Yes and even more with 5g. That's the future and the next generations won't care. It will be the norm.
  • I agree totally!!
  • Hey speaking of cord-cutting, maybe you should switch to cutting the umbilical cords of farm animals since you don't want to use technology. Look at all the things you've actively recommended to users where they would certainly be mined for a tremendous amount of data but this is crossing the line now? Please...
  • The author of this story isn't rational. Saying we should hold a company to the flames for optionally enabling (at the users choice) a previously disabled and unused component makes absolutely no sense. Users of this product received a meaningful update and the media acts like Google and Nest betrayed them somehow... The issues people seem to be raising is that since there was a microphone in these devices, Google/Nest could have recorded or otherwise monitored users without their consent, but the issue with this line of reasoning isn't sound, as there is NO EVIDENCE anything deceitful was done. Further, when users asked for the device to be able to detect breaking glass, multiple Nest representatives immediately replied that such a feature update was possible in the future. Anyone ever remotely intelligent would immediately conclude that the device must have a microphone, so the component wasn't hidden by anyone. It was omitted from the specification sheet for one of the following reasons: 1) Since the microphone wasn't being used, there was no need to advertise a component that performed absolutely no function; 2) They decided to not use or advertise the component specifically as to not alienate people like the writer of this article, with the intention (at that time) of simply not using it; or 3) some huge conspiracy was afoot like all these articles are implying. Which do you think is more likely? Settle down. Use the new feature if desired, and do not use it if you don't want such functionality. If you choose the latter, it isn't like the existence of an unused piece of hardware is hurting you or infringing on your right of privacy or otherwise...
  • If they we're recording without consent why would they tell you? That's not how that works. Why would they show you incriminating evidence?
  • Because Google is a TRILLION dollar company on a good day and losing consumer confidence would cost them EVERYTHING. As a company they are only scared of ******* off shareholders. Missing profits is what does that. Doing anything super shady could destroy their company, maybe even get the government to tear them apart. This is a black eye for Google (and should be) but lets not blow everything out of proportion.
  • Wait, if someone included a feature that can be enabled by malicious attackers to spy on me, i'd like to know its there. maybe a smart door lock has a microphone to allow you to unlock it by voice commands, but didn't enable it yet. So they don't tell you about the microphone. Suddenly hackers find out about it. That's not a good scenario. If there's something in my device that can outright violate my privacy in anyway, i'd like to know its there. if you suddenly find out it had a camera too and you had it in your child's bedroom the whole time, would you feel good about it?
  • Now that makes more sense.
  • Go home Phil. You're a good journalist, but this horse is dead.
  • Look at all the $croogle fanboys just ignoring this issue, protect the hive at all costs and wonder where your privacy went.
  • Look at you fear mongers stirring up a minor story to make their retarded narrative sound realistic.
  • C'mon, mics and cameras are everywhere already. If youre so worried about being spyed on I suggest to get a landline, don't use any gadgets or computers and dont leave the house. Actually don't get a landline the telephone company maybe listening in. Lol. My point is that it is already too late to worry as this has been happening for the last decade. It's not about spying, it's about marketing for the companys and convenience for the end user.
  • Everything that has a speaker has a microphone. What's the problem?
  • Not everything that has a speaker is designed to handle input back into the system. Yes a speaker can be used as a microphone, but not any device is suddenly capable of recording. Every potato is a battery but doesn't mean I have to worry about it blowing up in my pocket.
  • I'm in the camp of whatever, no big deal. I already own multiple Google Home products and I'm pretty sure those all have mics. IMO, if someone is really ticked off about it and they bought the Nest under false pretenses, Nest should buy it back, no questions asked. I will be keeping my product.
  • Oh no, it's got a microphone, unlike your phone, smart speakers, smart displays, wearables, etc., etc. Good show with the mock indignation.
  • You have to be exceptionally naive to not know this had a mic in it. It is an obvious no brainier to include one with it They should have listed it. I'm just waiting for someone to do a teardown of the thermostats and discover they have one too.
  • The product buyers are people who are making a vested interest in keeping their house, home, business etc secure, against possible threats.
    Enter the parent company who sells these items and also makes money off of data mining and advertising - and decides not to make public that there is an open mic on these devices.
    Obviously the decision to not disclose information about the mic was simply to support their business strategy - not to support their client base strategy. I mean come on - who benefits from this - should be the question. Whose main interests were protected?
    For a long time I was an agreement to let Google capture my data in exchange for using their software. But things are seemingly getting out of control with showing no respect for their end-user. That - now - bothers me greatly. To the point I really think Apple is going to be my next phone, security and home ecosystem.
    At least Apple is protective of their end users - to me that speaks volumes and shows respect. That's what I want in my house.
  • Imagine the indignation there would be if after a year and a half following release a 2.0 product came out with a mic enabled. People would be screaming that Nest is gouging them to update to a new and more functional product.
  • In 2019, the norm is to ship dormant sensors and silicon, only to enable them in a future update. The visual core and titan chips in the Pixel 2 and 3 are a great example. They should just make it clear on the spec sheet, for those who care.
  • Meh... No harm, no foul. Oversights happen...
  • Here is a thought....everyone give up your cell phones, cable/dish, internet, credit cards, and gps. You are being tracked at all times....just saying.. :) Lets all go back to how it was 20 years ago where we couldn't easily find information or have 2 devices work together if they were not made by the same company or if one of those devices was 2 years older then the other. LOL
  • The difference is that when you buy a cell phone, laptop or an Amazon Echo, etc., you know there's a microphone. You consciously make the informed decision.
  • Yeah but did you know your cell carrier, cable/dish/internet provider, bank, credit card, were tracking you and selling data? This is a device that had a disabled microphone that was not activated until an update / feature was ready .
  • Damn I wish I had bought one of those. What an awesome law suit this is going to be... I'm so bummed I missed our on it!!
  • What is a "law suit?" Is it a suit made of laws? I highly doubt anyone (other than the lawyers) are going to get a dime out of a lawsuit over a disabled microphone. Go eat some crayons, your trolling is incompetent and obvious.
  • His trolling is obvious? Says the person who keeps jumping into everyone's comments with a spirited defense of Google and insults for anyone who doesn't share his/her apathy.
  • I'm not defending Google, I am trying to defend sanity. If we knee jerk over every 2 or 3 then when we get an actual six or seven then everyone is going to be apathetic. That is why Facebook can already get away with crap like Cambridge. All you "privacy" paladins keep telling people to be scared and they are exhausted worrying about **** that never impacts them. How about instead of arm waiving you tell me what I am actually supposed to be afraid of?
  • Definitely agree with this. You don't want to "chicken little" everything and go around shouting the sky is falling all the time. People do indeed, get exhausted with it all.
  • You're making fun of how someone spelled "lawsuit" when you keep going on about "arm waiving." What is that, signing a waiver to give up your right to bear arms? Or your right to have bare arms in the summer? I thought it was a typo the first two or three times, but now I think you spell as badly as the rest of us arm waving privacy fanatics, who remember a different world when "1984" was a cautionary tale and not real life for the Chinese and who don't want to see that acquiescence become a norm here.
  • What other recourse is there? Don't buy Google products.
  • I am not sure why so many people are so surprised by this discovery.
  • Anybody using Google products really has no right to complain.
  • Why? A disabled microphone could have made the device heavier. They had to carry those things! OMG!!!
  • Google has a microphone in almost every device they sell - as we know - Assistant is one of their major endgames. Im baffled as to why we are surprised by this. Phil - you've been one of the most progressive and locked in tech bloggers, and your site has become a safe haven for most android related topics... let's not push fear tactics to your newer readers who are finally becoming open to the progressive world of tech. As you recommend Nest cams and other google products, they all have microphones... why the long article which is based off of a crappy CNET article? This piece is easily one of your worst.
  • I forsee a Congressional hearing in Google's future...
    And a huge law suit!
  • Ugh, for ****'s sake learn how to spell dimwit.
  • Just for a moment, imagine if it was Huawei instead of Google. In line with the current allegations against them, would they have been given the same leeway most people are willing to afford the other companies here..?
  • I'll bite. No, and that changes what? Huawei is not an American company and has a vested interest in the success of the Chinese government. Google is an American company trying to sell hardware and ads. If Google can show me ads I might actually be interested in they are welcome to know about my Cheerios purchases. Huawei isn't trying to sell me Cheerios... Again, what are you so afraid Google is going to do???
  • i do not have this device. now, knowing about the microphone, would i still buy it?
  • I am not invested in Googles Home AI stuff, but if I were, and were in the market for a security system, I would consider this a plus. As has been mentioned, these alarm control centers are typically at an entry/exit point. Perfect place to have something that can do something with 'Hey Google, turn off the lights."
  • Let's all talk about a provocative non issue and get everyone talking. Great marketing.
  • I know what you had for dinner last night....
  • If a microphone is not enabled in the forest can it broadcast a sound. We will never know an frankly most won't care.
  • Google are the good guys though. So it is totally expected. The NSA totally didn't use that mic for anything suspicious.
  • If a different company put a microphone in a product not typically associated with eavesdropping, people might to be so forgiving, even if it were a company who knew a lot about you. Imagine if the EMV strip on your credit card or debit card also contained a microphone (not needing a battery like some RFIDs). Suppose it turned out that any time you used your Visa or MasterCard, the issuing bank could listen-in. Then, one day this new feature were advertised as letting you verbally tell the card to add a 20 percent tip. Would you be OK with it? Or would you dismiss any concerns because the card issuer already knows your spending habits? Because a thermostat isn't supposed to have a microphone, any more than a credit card is.
  • I thought people in 2019 knew if you want electronic convenience the price is privacy. People been talking about this since 1984 big brother is here people.
  • A microphone is present in a device but it isn't made publicly known and people are ripping Phil. Ya'll in too deep and need to step back and think about where you are with this stuff.
  • wonder what else it has...camera??
  • How is it, that more than a year goes by and not one tech writer or any other consumer for that matter never opened the case and noticed a microphone was inside? Are there microphones in the nest thermostat? Microphones in the Nest Protect Smoke / CO2 detectors?