Since 2017 Google has been selling its Nest Secure home-security system complete with a built-in microphone. The problem? It didn’t tell anyone about the microphone.
Earlier this month Google announced a software update for the Nest Secure that included information on how to activate the microphone. That came as a shock to users who had no idea there was a microphone feature to begin with.
One shaken buyer tweeted out a simple question: “Have I had a device with a hidden microphone in my house this entire time?” The answer, frighteningly enough, is a resounding yes.
Google quickly shifted into damage control as the discussion veered into serious questions about invasion of privacy—was it possible the unmentioned microphones were collecting information from unwitting consumers this entire time? Google denied the charge.
“We included a microphone in the Nest Guard with features such as the Google Assistant in mind,” the company responded on Twitter. “It has not been used up to this point, and you can enable or disable it at any time using the Nest app.”
Google later emailed a statement admitting their failure to mention the device in previous materials was an “error,” and claimed the microphones were included to eventually detect disturbances or intrusions, such as the sound of glass breaking.
“The on-device microphone was never intended to be a secret and should have been listed in the tech specs,” the statement reads. “That was an error on our part. The microphone has never been on, and is only activated when users specifically enable the option.”
Google has since updated the product page to mention the microphone.
Still, this episode highlights the increasing privacy concerns that come with ubiquitous computing devices.
“At the very least, people need to know what they’re buying and, to the extent that they can, have a sense of what the risk entails,” Lindsey Barrett, a teaching fellow and staff attorney at Georgetown Law’s Institute for Public Representation, told The Atlantic. “That’s an incredibly difficult ask for consumers in this day and age. But [this] seems like a pretty basic kernel of information that they’d need to know.”