Google buys Nest: is 'smart thermostat' a threat to privacy?

Jan 14, 2014

Google could use Nest data to gain an even more complete picture of your movements, say experts


GOOGLE'S $3.2m acquisition of Nest, a technology company best known for its "smart thermostat" that tracks people in their own homes, has prompted fears over users' privacy.

The Nest Learning Thermostat uses motion sensors to detect movement within a home, learns its user's habits and adjusts heat settings accordingly.

Nest has previously only used user information to improve its products and has not shared it with advertisers and other services, but technology experts have suggested Google might have other ideas in mind.

The acquisition, which is expected to close in the next few months, continues Google's "big new push" to apply its expertise to physical objects, from self-driving cars to robots and now home appliances, says Will Oremus in Slate magazine. He compares Google's end goal to the automated home in /The Jetsons/, adding: "It's an exciting notion, and in some ways a scary one."

Considering Google's history of sharing information with advertisers and the government, Nest users "have reasons to feel discomfited", says Rakesh Sharma in Forbes magazine.

Nest will continue to operate with its own distinct brand identity and has assured users it has "always taken privacy seriously and this will not change".

But Peter Higgins, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, tells Forbes that "technology companies have a history of putting out carefully worded statements and then figuring out a way to do what they want to do".

Google could easily combine Nest data with its other services to gain an even more complete picture of your movements, says Higgins. For example, it would be relatively easy for Google to establish that someone left their home after receiving an email from their girlfriend.

"When combined with other things Google knows about you, data collected inside your home could turn out to have considerable value to advertisers," says Richard Waters in the Financial Times. If a smart thermostat can work out when you have woken up or returned home, imagine how valuable that would be when Google is trying to work out the best time to serve you a relevant advert, he says.

So far America's Federal Trade Commission has been reluctant to make rules about this relatively new area of technology – dubbed the "internet of things" or "Thingternet" – for fear of stifling innovation.

But Stacey Higginbotham, on tech website GigaOm, says it is time the conversation about privacy and the internet of things "takes a step forward".

Even if Google has no designs on the "smart home", says Higginbotham, the data Nest has access to "will be like your child's forgotten Halloween candy sitting in your cupboard – it's something you know you shouldn't touch, but it will ultimately tempt you into doing something you shouldn't".

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