January 13, 2014

Mass ACLU Concerned Over Privacy with Google's Acquisition of Nest

The Massachusetts ACLU had an interesting take on Google's acquisition of connected thermostat and smoke detector company Nest yesterday. 

In a blog post on Mass ACLU's privacy and technology blog, PrivacySOS, the organization questioned Google's motives and examined the implications of its $3.2B purchase of Nest. Basically, the site asked whether it should be a concern that Google (a company who some have argued has a checkered history when it comes to user's privacy) will be behind the controls of Nest's Wi-Fi enabled products that track sensitive, location-based information.

As Pandodaily pointed out in a piece that claimed that consumers could be one of the big losers of the Google/Nest deal:

"Nest products track detailed information about their users’ movements, in addition to things like a user’s WiFi IP address, and whether the specific address is a home or a business. At the moment, that information is stored in Nest’s cloud servers.

"Google has not been the bastion of user privacy rights. If tweets are any sign, Nest consumers are already concerned about the acquisition. After all, Google access to Nest data essentially puts the web giant’s eyes directly into the homes of the users."

Although some of the implications may be a stretch and very unlikely to happen, Pando added:

"Nest’s CEO Tony Faddell told The Verge that the company has no plans to alter its privacy policy at the moment, which requires getting a user’s permission before sharing any of the collected information. That, he admitted, could change."

Nest even sought to dispel any concerns over privacy on its own website, "Our privacy policy clearly limits the use of customer information to providing and improving Nest’s products and services. We’ve always taken privacy seriously and this will not change."

The Mass ACLU's point of view is much more skeptical of Google's plans. It uses an argument from a recent class action suit against Google to build suspicion of the Google/Nest deal.

"This development should give us all pause, particularly when considered within the context of another recent—if much lesser noticed—Google announcement," Mass ACLU said in its blog. It then examines a Courthouse News description of Google's motion to dismiss a December 2013 class action lawsuit. The lawsuit alleged that Google violated the Federal Wiretap Act when its Street View cars inadvertently collected "personal emails, usernames, passwords, videos, and documents" over WiFi networks.

Google fixed the glitch, but still argued the following point that made the Mass ACLU worried about the company's interest in Nest's WiFi products:

In its motion to dismiss the proposed class action, Google had argued that all data transmitted over any Wi-Fi network is an electronic "radio communication," and thus exempt, just as any other radio broadcast, from the prohibition on interception of the same. It supported this argument by defining radio communication as "any information transmitted using radio wave." Google also justified the interception of unencrypted WiFi networks because they are "readily accessible to the general public.”

As PrivacySOS points out, "Google argues that it has the right to collect your most sensitive data, as long as it flows across an open WiFi network." The Mass ACLU blog then asks, "Now do you want to let this company inside your home?"

The Mass ACLU is not alone in questioning how Nest's privacy rules will work within Google's internet empire, but they were one of the first outlets to question the privacy implications and do have one of the more detailed takes.

Honestly, I believe that Nest has some of the coolest and most useful hardware products out there (especially, its smoke/CO2 detector). It seems that the Google/Nest connection could be one of the biggest steps forward to making the connected home a viable reality for everyone. It would be a shame if this great innovation did anything but improve our lives.

You can read the entire Mass ACLU blog post here.

Dennis Keohane is the Senior Writer for VentureFizz. You can follow Dennis on Twitter (@DBKeohane) by clicking here.