So you burnt something in your oven. We've all been there, frantically waving a towel in front of our smoke detectors to stop the shrill. No big deal. Aside from your roommates and maybe a nearby neighbor, no one was the wiser about your kitchen folly. With Google's recent acquisition of Nest – maker of important but oft-forgotten products, like thermostats and smoke detectors – that may be changing.
Home automation isn't new, though the concept has gained traction within the broader discussion of the "Internet of Things (IoT)." Without delving deeply into the history of home automation, suffice it to say that it has been a topic well before it took on the title "home automation." Viewing the home as a system, almost anything can be automated: HVAC, security, window shades, door locks, outdoor sprinklers, and audio-visual equipment. You can have the quintessential "interconnected" house. Leave for the morning and forget to shut the garage door? No problem, there's an app for that. Heck. Leave for the morning and forget to turn off a single light, any TV or the sprinkler system? There's an app for that, too.
With this convenience, of course, comes a price (literally and figuratively). As the house becomes a home, so too does it get to know its occupants on a level that we were perhaps unaware (or unwilling). Your comings and goings, your water and electrical usage may all be stored, charted and analyzed. In fact, this isn’t the first time that “smart” technology and the home have intersected. Not long from now, you may even get an email from your refrigerator letting you know that your lunchmeat is about to spoil.
So what is Nest? In a nutshell, it’s a home automation company that designs high-end "smart appliances," like learning thermostats and smoke detectors. Nest is led by a veritable who's-who of executives and engineers, hailing from Apple, Sling and Logitech.
What's Google's interest in Nest? Frankly, what isn't? Google's currency is data, and they have a lot of it. Nest brings a type of data that Google doesn't – yet – have access to. That is: how do people physically interact with the systems around them. With anonymized virtual access to our online content, Google can paint a fairly decent portrait of who we are digitally (aren't those targeted advertisements spot-on at least some of the time?). What Google gains here is insight into our physical life—interaction with our physical space. It's less the thermostat and smoke detector that gets Google going; rather it's the trove of data that Google can add to its arsenal. Nest operates by extracting information from the room in which it is setup, including information on the lighting in the room, the relative humidity, and the presence of individuals in the room. Combine this with what Google already knows about us and you can start to see what Google finds so valuable in Nest’s product line.
Where do we go from here? Nest issued a softly worded statement affirming its commitment to privacy and that nothing would change following the sale to Google. And, to be fair, the development of this product and products like it may very well incorporate the Privacy by Design fundamentals, where privacy protections are available to the product user in the form of choice and consent to the use of information. To be sure, the "enhanced experience" every company is seeking to provide may very well be worth the sharing of such information. We just do not know yet.
It will undoubtedly be a while before we see the interconnected home truly take off. For one thing, it's expensive. For another, a lot of these devices are in their infancy. But, it’s headed in that direction, and given that, if Google hadn’t purchased Nest, do we really think Apple or another competitor wouldn’t have done so? My guess is no. But, in this instance, it was Google. And, for better or worse, Google brings with it some privacy baggage (see here, here or here). This will be worth watching in the coming months and years, particularly as Nest rolls out new products (and pushes new firmware for existing products). While there will undoubtedly be benefits—carbon monoxide detectors telling thermostats to turn off a furnace when a leak is detected—so too will there be costs. As with all things privacy and in line with other posts on the FI&C privacy page—individual diligence is still critical. Caveat emptor (buyer beware).