Tech & Science

Google Admits Home Security Device Had Secret Microphone For Over a Year, Says it was 'Never Intended' to be Covert

Google conceded today that it was an “error” to keep a microphone covertly installed in its Nest Guard device a secret from users since its late 2017 release.

The California-based technology giant received growing backlash from customers and security experts since an announcement on February 4 that the Nest Guard would soon add Google Assistant voice capabilities. The issue: users were never told a microphone existed.

In a statement today, a Google spokesperson told Business Insider the microphone was “never intended to be a secret and should have been listed in the tech specs” for the product, which is the brains of the Securerange for homes—alongside the Nest Detect, Tag and App.

A spokesperson described the mistake as “an error on our part.” A product listing has since been updated and now includes a notice the device includes an on-board microphone.

The statement added: “The microphone has never been on and is only activated when users specifically enable the option. Security systems often use microphones to provide features that rely on sound sensing. 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.”

On February 4, Google described Google Assistant on Nest Guard as an opt-in feature. “As the feature becomes available to our users, they’ll receive an email with instructions on how to enable the feature and turn on the microphone in the Nest app,” it said, before admitting: “Nest Guard does have one on-device microphone that is not enabled by default.”

The news of a hidden microphone comes amid heightened debate about digital privacy and the vast power held by major technology companies such as Google, Amazon and Facebook. For years, speculation has swirled about home speakers and the extent they are always-on.

“This is the kind of thing that makes me paranoid of smart home devices,” tech commentator Nick Heer wrote on his blog Pixel Envy today, the BBC reported.

“If I owned one of these things and found out that the world’s biggest advertising company hid a microphone in my home for a year, I’d be livid. Wouldn’t anyone?” Heer added.

On social media, users shared the concern. “A fun exercise is to replace the word 'smart' with 'spy' when it comes to these kinds of consumer technologies,” one Twitter user noted.

Responding to an article on the topic by enterprise technology website CSO, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights organization based in California, tweeted yesterday: “No product should ever come with a secret microphone regardless of whether or not it's enabled. That's just bad security design.”

Big Brother Watch, a U.K.-based organisation that campaigns on privacy and civil liberties tweeted today: “Google has secret microphones in home security product, Nest Guard. This is deceit, not an 'error'. Our worries about smart home devices appear to be proving true. They're allowing tech giants to constantly listen in the privacy of our homes.” 

Nest Guard Microphone Google said on February 4 that the Nest Guard device would soon add Google Assistant voice capabilities. The problem? Users were never told a microphone existed. Google

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