Google says failure to disclose a microphone in Nest device was an ‘error’

21 Feb 2019

Nest Guard device. Image: Nest

Google neglected to let customers know that the Nest Guard security hub included a microphone.

Google’s Nest Guard is a home security hub, which can be used to control an array of smart security sensors around a building. The company acquired Nest in 2014 and merged it into its Google Hardware division in 2018.

Nest Secure update caused confusion

In early February, Google announced that the Nest Secure system – which includes Nest Guard – would be getting an update, including the option to avail of Google Assistant technology. According to Business Insider, this particular element of the update was flagged as an issue, as users were not aware the Nest Guard device included a microphone in the first place.

Nest Guard is the alarm, motion sensor and keypad element of the Nest Secure product suite, and the microphone was never disclosed in any of the product material included with the device. Earlier this week, a Google spokesperson described the omission of information as an “error” made by the company.

The spokesperson said that the “on-device microphone was never intended to be a secret and should have been listed on the tech specs”. They stressed that the microphone has never been on and is “only activated when users specifically enable the option”.

Feature was included, but not enabled

Google’s representative added that the feature was initially included to allow for new security features to be added to Nest over time, such as the ability to detect glass breaking during a burglary. They added: “Security systems often use microphones to provide features that rely on sound sensing.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation tweeted criticism of the so-called “error”:

Google has already run into trouble this year for apparent privacy issues. In January, the company said it would be appealing a fine imposed by French data protection body CNIL for alleged failure to comply with GDPR.

The omission of the Nest microphone feature, while it may well have been an error, is still likely to fuel the fire around customer privacy concerns when it comes to the digital devices they are using in their homes.

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects