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.

Phil Nickinson