Earlier this month, Google announced that it was adding Google Assistant support for its Nest Guard, which is a part of the Nest Secure system.
The problem with this announcement?
Users were not informed that the Nest Guard included a microphone, which would be required to add Assistant support.
The Guard is a base-station of sorts for the security system, serving as a keypad in addition to monitoring the other segments of the modular security system. None of those functions require a microphone and it was not disclosed anywhere on the packaging.
A Google spokesperson told Gizmodo:
"The on-device microphone was never intended to be a secret and should have been listed in the tech specs. That was an error on our part."
For many, the lack of voice commands and a microphone was a selling point for Nest Guard which relies on a keypad to function.
So the announcement about Google Assistant coming soon to Nest Guard was an unwelcome surprise for people wanting to avoid built in microphones and cameras that could potentially monitor a user. Again, people bought Nest Guard because it was keypad operated, NOT voice activated.
But the feature Google plans to add to Nest Guard, Google Assistant, works by "listening" for a trigger phrase ("Hey Google," by default) and then responding to user commands. This requires a microphone to monitor surrounding sounds and detect the trigger phrase which let the cat out of the bag about the microphone in Google Nest Guard.
Google claims that the microphones in Guard units have not yet been activated.
"The microphone has never been on and is only activated when users specifically enable the option."
The spokesperson also cited the fact that security systems often have microphones to detect sounds for various reasons, saying they:
"included the mic on the device so that [it] can potentially offer additional features to our users in the future, such as the ability to detect broken glass."
There has been significant public outcry over the microphones.
Nest Guard users are understandably concerned about their privacy. Most people these days have smart home products with microphones, and don't have a problem with that, but many have cited the idea of informed consent: a product's user can't consent to something they are unaware of.
Not many Twitter users believed this was a mistake or an oversight keeping the built in microphone off the tech specs on the system.
@Gizmodo Not a mess up. A deliberate, calculated design followed by a deliberate decision to not inform consumers.— DouglasTerborg (@DouglasTerborg)1550797685.0
@Gizmodo I tripped and accidentally installed recording devices in thousands of Nest units and forgot to tell anyone whoopsie! Such a clutz!— Avocado Roast (@Avocado Roast)1550789602.0
@Gizmodo They accidentally put microphones in their security systems? They accidentally bought millions of mics to… https://t.co/OC39iDzlqV— StLuGal (@StLuGal)1550757662.0
@Gizmodo What’s the old saying about being a feature not a bug. Google is always apologizing for lapses in privac… https://t.co/F1Hwz199qH— grover 💙 (@grover 💙)1550700482.0
Oops! We neglected to mention we're recording everything you do while fronting as a security device. The fact that… https://t.co/2Gw8Ywyzb2— Scott Galloway (@Scott Galloway)1550673097.0
@profgalloway Let’s assume naive innocence... still not looking good if they planned that a hidden 🎤 would be a wel… https://t.co/9y2dRlFAqf— Max Ziebell (@Max Ziebell)1550680397.0
@profgalloway @slpng_giants Microphone? What microphone? Oh, you mean THAT one? How ever did that get there?? Oh,… https://t.co/q2daIIPOu1— Quest For Apollo (@Quest For Apollo)1550677601.0
Others have noticed a trend in tech company behavior.
@Gizmodo Tech companies always admit they mess up when they get caught. They then proceed to mess up again and again.— DawnJohnson (@DawnJohnson)1550756248.0
I love how tech giants think calling some massive betrayal of user trust “an error” makes it all better. Google had… https://t.co/eZYkBd2So6— Josh Constine (@Josh Constine)1550639085.0
@JoshConstine I remember the olden days when the Google motto was “Don’t be evil.”— Pat Loughery, DMin (@Pat Loughery, DMin)1550702918.0
Some didn't seem to understand the public outcry.
The crazy thing about this whole Google Nest, hidden microphone thing is that all the inexpensive smart TVs that pe… https://t.co/r4ED4H3IRQ— Bryan William Jones (@Bryan William Jones)1550679801.0
@scotclose @BWJones @GreatDismal Key word is “voluntary”. We know where the microphone is and how to avoid it if de… https://t.co/8pJYdxLjFD— Matt Seitz (@Matt Seitz)1550686776.0
Whether this was an intentional "it's better to ask forgiveness than permission" scenario or just a giant mistake, it doesn't change the fact Google has a responsibility to disclose when one of their devices is capable of listening to its users.
Even if they intended to announce it as a feature at a later date, as they did, they could have told customers the device had a microphone so they could make an informed decision about whether to purchase the product.