back to article EPIC demand: It's time for Google to fly the Nest after 'forgetting' to mention home alarm hub has built-in mic

Following Google's acknowledgement that it made a mistake by failing to mention that its Nest Guard alarm hub includes a microphone, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has asked the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to force the ad biz to sell its Nest division and surrender data snarfed from Nest customers. The …

  1. Dan 55 Silver badge

    Google claims that the mics were never used prior to disclosure, which would preclude the possibility of covert data collection.

    Well, they would say that, wouldn't they? (MRDA)

    So we should all be reassured, just like I'm sure we all were when Google claimed Street View WiFi slurp was done by a rogue engineer.

    1. The Man Who Fell To Earth Silver badge
      FAIL

      More to the point

      "FTC" stands for "F*ck The Consumer". So they will do nothing.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: More to the point

        So they will do nothing.

        As they should. If a consumer buys a Google product, what did they expect? Google (Amazon, Facebook etc) are known for the fact that they slurp all and any data they can. You can choose to believe or not that the mic wasn't active, but regardless, I assume that any Google product exists only to feed their data mining business - if I get any utility that's almost an accident.

        It's almost like complaining that the bacon you bought is not vegan. So zero sympathy with customers and complainers.

        1. overunder

          Re: More to the point

          "It's almost like complaining..."

          Sure, but you just can't let crime continue because it doesn't affect you. However, you can let it continue if it's not your government permitting it. So ask yourself, is it or isn't it your government letting crime continue?

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The problem in the US is that privacy is not a *consumer* right, it's a *citizen* right.

    The T in FTC is for "trade". This is not a "trade" issue, one between a seller and a consumer, it's not a product warranty or something alike.

    US should follow EU (and other countries) and have a specific agency (and legal framework) tasked with data protection and citizens' privacy.

    1. Tom 38 Silver badge

      Re: The problem in the US is that privacy is not a *consumer* right, it's a *citizen* right.

      But... Small Government!

      Also we need $25 billion for a wall and will be taking your land. Small Government!

    2. Mongrel

      Re: The problem in the US is that privacy is not a *consumer* right, it's a *citizen* right.

      Squinting at it, "the product was mis-represented in it's spec sheet and an on-board microphone would have been part of the purchasing decision"

      Weak sauce I know, but best I can do before me cuppa.

    3. Tigra 07 Silver badge
      Headmaster

      Re: The problem in the US is that privacy is not a *consumer* right, it's a *citizen* right.

      "The T in FTC is for "trade". This is not a "trade" issue, one between a seller and a consumer, it's not a product warranty or something alike"

      If i give you money. And you give me a thermostat. That's a trade...

      1. overunder

        Re: The problem in the US is that privacy is not a *consumer* right, it's a *citizen* right.

        "If i give you money. And you give me a thermostat. That's a trade..."

        Most certainly is. I'd even consider the fact that a product sold for a purpose that intentionally defeats that very purpose is a act of malice.

        People are right about the FTC though, they're corporate puppets. If they weren't, find one foundation contrary that allowed this mess of corporatism to arrive how it has. The FTC isn't alone of course, there are many, many puppets (all government at this point? ... it's hard not seeing it like that).

  3. adnim Silver badge

    If Google are forced to sell...

    The new owners will keep the microphone but mention it in the ad blurb, then sell the data to Google.

    A half joking icon might be useful.

  4. John Sturdy
    WTF?

    I'm surprised it wasn't noticed before

    ifixit seem to have missed this one, although they've done some other Nest products. Surely someone must have taken one apart, and noticed the microphone? Or is it such dull device that no-one expected there to be anything of interest inside it?

    1. TechnicalBen Silver badge

      Re: I'm surprised it wasn't noticed before

      If I've read the article right... it was in the app. Like "Mic on/off" in the app... IT WAS IN THE APP.

      So much for "hidden" crazy conspiracy theorists. Yes, as a marketing/product spec Googled failed. But a LOT of companies have got lax over their spec sheets recently. Just look at Carphone warehouse and the Samsung S10... they not the screen size in perfect detail, to the atom... then say "phone, has USB charger" and, "Android", and that's about it, on their "detailed spec list". 3 bullet points!!!

      1. rmason Silver badge

        Re: I'm surprised it wasn't noticed before

        @TechnicalBen

        Sort of, but not quite.

        It didn't used to be in the app. That is what has caused the kerfuffle.

        The app updated and suddenly users were presented with the mic and it's related options/functions. A mic they didn't know what there.

        The mic was unknown to users until an app update "outed" it. At which point google copped to it.

        1. TechnicalBen Silver badge
          Stop

          Re: I'm surprised it wasn't noticed before

          Yeah. Love the downvotes.

          I never worked in the actual engineering/development, but even working in a simple mom and pop corner shop Hardware store, we got talking to the sales/rep staff to big companies (or just reading old development stories). Shows, no end of times, actual hardware gets added to products, with possible future development that fails, or just plain "cut it, not enough time/cash".

          So, at some point, Google changed the product/system/software. Yes, this is bad. But it's not "spying". It's a failure in their development, spec lists, advertising.

          Another example would be the occasional failed Samsung (other brands no doubt do it) IOT or smart speaker launches. Loads of hardware in those things, non of it on the spec sheets, none of it worked day 1 release, half of it never activated, and the other half still buggy. The entire range got recalled.

          No one is blaming Samsung for "spying" on that failed product release, because some hardware got activated/deactivated due to development "release it now, fix it later" cycles. Or accused of "spying" because they messed up their spec sheet on "oh, mic code is trash, hardware sync fails... just say it's a internet connected speaker and hope to fix it later".

          Even a broken clock is right twice a day. And in this case, I would say Google was innocent, and an actual honest mistake here. The *one* time, out of all the others where they did not do it to spy on people. If we say *every* thing that happens is because of some conspiracy at Google, we would turn into crazies! While Google does a lot wrong, we still need to be realistic!

  5. Rich 11 Silver badge

    If the mic can be activated by hackers looking to identify and sell occupancy patterns...

    "We included the mic on the device so that we can potentially offer additional features to our users in the future, such as the ability to detect broken glass."

    "Hey Google, what was that noise?"

    "That was your back door being kicked in. Would you like to register with a better class of burglar?"

    1. Tigra 07 Silver badge
      Pint

      Re: If the mic can be activated by hackers looking to identify and sell occupancy patterns...

      "Please set default action for detection of broken glass"

      ALCOHOLIC MODE ACTIVATED. NO POLICE WILL BE CALLED.

  6. Version 1.0 Silver badge
    Meh

    The Nest cameras have microphones and it's a useful feature, you can get an alert when the camera hears something - this is all in the product descriptions so it's not too surprising that their Home Guard product had a microphone. These things are designed by geeky engineers so why the big surprise if they added a microphone but thought that if they hadn't turned it on and written an code to access or use it then when the engineer talks to the sales folks it's not part of the product.

    Would everyone be running around in circles screaming if the Nest designers had put an accelerometer in the device and not mentioned it? (clue - you have to be a hardware engineer to understand the question)

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      The Up/Down votes reflect the ratio of readers, Engineers vs Programmers - this is exactly why the problem happened.

    2. TechnicalBen Silver badge

      I totally agree.

      I've seen multiple manufactures of TVs/smart speakers etc do this. I'm not from the age of "Hifi" so, no experience there. But in the rush for "make it smart" a lot of companies made these same mistakes or communication/development road map fails.

      Samsung and Panasonic, possibly Sony, were known for changing supported video/audio/file format support to their products as time went by (that's before going over Skype, Youtube, etc).

      A Smart TV that has "voice activation", that gets dropped, upgraded to Skype, cancelled, then cut out is not uncommon. Though I think that boat sailed, and everything is done via phone linked app now. But I would not be surprised if a few TVs do have mics still (either for automatic acoustic tuning, advert detection (ultrasonic signals) or just speaker/hifi pairing (also via ultrasonic signals)).

      Yes, it's still bad to not include it in a spec sheet! But it's an overlooked thing, not a conspiracy. Just as no one bothers to note that a TV actually has an IR detector on the spec sheets anymore. While privacy is important, a mic, has now become so common place, the marketing/engineering team just don't always put it on the customer facing docs. :/

  7. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge
    Coat

    Google Wise Monkeys

    See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil

    1. Tigra 07 Silver badge

      Re: Google Wise Monkeys

      Do No Evil?

      1. Gerry 3
        Happy

        Re: Google Wise Monkeys

        Do Know Evil. FTFY !

    2. MiguelC Silver badge

      Re: Google Wise Monkeys

      Ignore Evil is more like it...

  8. ThatOne Silver badge

    Suspicions

    The problem is that Google is a repeat offender. A hidden microphone in something sold by a company famous for not understanding personal space and privacy, that is bound to raise some eyebrows. Obviously nobody would had been angry if they had forgotten to mention a hygrometer.

    Just saying, when you see a notorious alcoholic trying to hide a bottle, you don't assume it's dandruff shampoo, although it's possible.

  9. Eddy Ito Silver badge

    The problem is that people still trust Google even after all their spy shenanigans so it's obvious that most people simply don't care. The answer is simple, don't buy Google products or willingly1 use their services.

    1. Given how deep their tendrils run on nearly every website it can be very difficult indeed. It's as bad as, if not worse than, the software years ago that stated "requires IE6" in order to run.

  10. Cederic

    The US really needs the same ability people in the UK have to bring a private prosecution. A couple of million criminal prosecutions against the CEO would sharpen minds a little.

  11. DougS Silver badge

    Their statement is contradictory

    "The microphone has never been on and is only activated when users specifically enable the option."

    So wait, if it has NEVER been on, how can it be activated when users specifically enable the option? If users were able to activate it, then it would be on.

  12. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

    "...and is only activated when users specifically enable the option."

    Click here to agree to the EULA...

    In this context:-

    End User Listening Agreement

  13. James Scholes

    Alphabet.

  14. duzkiss

    Sorry to state this, but I hear so much moaning and complaining and less people focusing on "positive intent". Just imaging IF this NEVER had a mic and then Google created a 2.0 version months later. We would be hearing countless complaints for refunds, exchanges, etc... Why? Because people would state "It should have been included in the 1.0 version"! Now, possibly Google did forget to place this one feature on the box. As an owner of SEVERAL alarm systems I can state, they all contain a mic for "Glass Break". Now, the mic for a "Glass Break Detection" on an older system such as ADT, Comcast or another system does listen, but can't understand the difference in high pitch frequencies because they lack the current AI we use. My 4 Parrots use to trigger those old fashioned alarms daily and it built up a bill with the local police department. As for Google including a "Google Home Aspect" into the unit..."What's the problem"? You don't have to activate it or turn it on. BTW, our privacy is violated daily and you never hear a thing. The phone company does it, the website you use does it, the camera on your laptop does it, the government does it...I have nothing to hide. You want to be a peeping tom. Go ahead. I don't fear you nor will I start to feel so closed in, terrified and scared as if I have something to hide. Let's stop being so paranoid...Oh, BTW, I wonder why no tech website didn't dissect this device. They have doe it to every Google Home, every Alexa, every iPhone and every Samsung Galaxy.

    1. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge
      Coat

      Re: "Glass Break Detection"

      I haven't looked at the circuitry or transducers utilised in these products, but I would imagine from this description that the electronics attached to them dictates whether the "listening component" is a microphone or whether it is a "Tuned Frequency Detector". The combination of "listening component" and "tuned frequency detector" would be useless as a microphone.

      "My 4 Parrots". Surely you can ignore the sound these make by using "parroty error correction"? (I think I'll get my coat).

    2. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

      Re: The phone company does it

      IIRC there are telephone systems that have eavesdropping facilities built in as a feature of their product. There's no indicator on the handset to indicate that the conversartion taking place in a room with the handset on-hook is being listened to on another handset within the same system.

  15. Colin Ritman

    Meh

    Clickbait. There was never an firmware to support the mic, and when there was it was off by default.

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