Can we trust Google-created smart objects?

Google's purchase elf Nest might be the first big test of consumers' attitude to privacy in the post-NSA revelations world.

Google has bought Nest – the internet of things company we’ve talked about on here before. On the face of it, this should be very good news. Google gives Nest scale, resources and data processing power, and Nest gives Google some absolutely top-notch hardware skills, something the company has almost entirely lacked until now.

Tony Fadell articulates this well in the blog post announcing the deal:

Google has the business resources, global scale and platform reach to accelerate Nest growth across hardware, software and services for the home globally. And our company visions are well aligned – we both believe in letting technology do the hard work behind the scenes so people can get on with the things that matter in life. Google is committed to helping Nest make a difference and together, we can help save more energy and keep people safe in their homes.

Why, then, has reaction around the web been so muted? There was a time when an acquisition by Google was something to get excited about, but two things have changed that. The first that Google has developed a nasty habit of acquiring things – and shutting them down. The purchase becomes a de facto acquihire, even if that was not the original intention. I don’t think that’s the case here, though.

The Surveillance Issue

No, this is Google’s first big purchase after the NSA revelations. Those aren’t Google’s fault, but they have made us more uneasy about the amount of data companies hold about us – and Google has a lot of data about us already. The idea of Google as a corporate entity gaining access to the large amount of data that connected home devices could gather about our daily habits has been a real sticking point for many over this deal.

Nilay Patel describes the core concerns for The Verge:

Fadell once described the Nest thermostat to me as nothing more than an on / off switch with a lot of nuance — nuance gained by collecting huge amounts of data about your living patterns and energy needs. Adding that data to Google’s formidable collection of information about nearly everyone who uses the internet struck immediate fears with privacy advocates and a growing base of skeptics who contend Google’s ad-supported business model creates an anti-privacy culture.

Nest and Google have, of course, said all the right things on the issue. Marco Arment has taken the responses apart point-by-point. Sure, Google will not have access to customer data initially, at least, but few people believe that that won’t change over time. And that’s the problem.

Can smart objects keep secrets?

What can we take away from this? As we start to invite increasing numbers of smart objects into our home, trust is going to become a key selling point. A series of tweets by Dan Hon captures the issues in consumers’ minds perfectly.

These objects have the capacity to tell where I am in the house, what temperature rooms are, and even if I’m in or out. If that data is purely used to provide enhancements to our environment, then all will be well. However, if Google succumbs to the temptation to bleed that data into other parts of its business, and it starts appearing in other products, then, there might be a problem.

A notification in Google Now that you’ve left the heating on? That’s likely to be fine with most people, especially if you can kill the heating remotely, and save yourself some cash. Data from your smoke alarm or thermostat ending up in your Google+ account, or in the adverts you’re shown? That’s a bigger problem.

If Google is going to use Nest to develop a genuine hardware business that benefits from its data processing skills, we might well have a winner here. If it ends up just serving its existing revenue stream – advertising – then Nest will start to tarnish pretty quickly.

The bigger data gets, the more privacy starts to matter – and the more seriously companies need to start taking it.