Three US senators call on Google CEO Sundar Pichai to give an in-person briefing concerning a report by Business Insider revealing that Google failed to disclose a microphone on the Google Nest Secure specs.
“The microphone has never been on, and is only activated when users specifically enable the option”
Read More: US senator urges investigation into Google over Google+ bug ‘coverup’
The report published by Business Insider on February 19 revealed that “Nest users didn’t know a microphone existed on their security device,” because the presence of a microphone was never disclosed.
According to Business Insider, Google’s full, official response was:
“The on-device microphone was never intended to be a secret and should have been listed in the tech specs. That was an error on our part. 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.”
Is it peculiar that Google said that the microphone would only be activated if users specifically enabled the option? How would they enable the option if they didn’t even know it existed, and what does this mean for privacy?
Read More: Privacy woes aside, Google Home Hub launches 1 day after Facebook’s Portal
How Google Got Caught
“Reportedly, the microphone’s existence was revealed when Google announced that the company would be enabling voice-activated Google Assistant features on Nest devices, which would only be possible if the devices contained microphones,” according to the open letter.
US Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee members Roger Wicker, John Thune, and Jerry Moran published an open letter to the Google CEO on February 25 requesting that Pichai provide a written response to their inquiries “by no later than 5PM on March 12,” and that he “provide an in-person briefing to Committee staff on this issue by no later than March 29.”
The senators are asking Pichai to answer the following in writing by 5PM on March 12, 2019:
- Has a microphone always been a component of the Nest Secure home security and alarm system device?
- When and how did Google become aware that a microphone was not listed on the Nest Secure’s technical specifications available to consumers?
- What steps has Google taken to inform purchasers of Nest Secure devices that the device contains a previously undisclosed microphone?
- Please describe Google’s process for developing technical specifications for its products. At what stage of this process did the error take place that resulted in the omission of the microphone’s presence in the Nest Secure device? Has Google taken steps to prevent such an error from reocurring in the technical specification for other Google products?
- Is Google aware or has Google ever been aware of any third party using the Nest Secure microphone for any unauthorized purpose?
- Is Google aware of similar omissions in the technical specifications for any other Google products?
Google Nest Microphone a Sleeper Cell for Third Party Ads?
If Pichai’s last appearance before Congress last December is any indication of where the discussions with the Senate Committee will lead, he will most likely stick to the story that Google had made a simple error and it was nothing more than that.
Read More: Google+ bug impacting 52.5M users announced day before CEO testifies in Congress
Pichai’s testimony before Congress, like that of Mark Zuckerberg’s previously, revealed that many members of Congress don’t have the slightest clue about how technology works or how big tech companies make money. Zuckerberg’s smirking response to how Facebook makes money stands out most:
“Senator, we run ads.”
“We included the mic on the device so that we can potentially offer additional features to our users in the future”
Maybe ads is one of the many reasons that the newly-discovered microphone on Google Nest Secure is coming under fire. Remember Google’s reason for having the microphone?
“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.”
The microphone was added to “potentially offer additional features” to future users. Google Nest devices can be connected to Google Home Hub, which was released in October, 2018. Google Home Hub is a smart home device that connects with just about every digital device that an upscale, modern homeowner can afford.
Over 5,000 devices from over 400 brands can be connected to Google Home Hub, which means there are over 5,000 ways to bring in ad revenue for Google from at least 400 brands.
“The more Google knows about you and your interests, the more valuable its ads become to marketers who pay the company to target potential buyers based on their likes, dislikes, age, interests and even location. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, makes about 90 percent of its $100 billion in annual sales from advertising,” CNET reported last October.
Theoretically, having a microphone on Google Nest Secure means that if it were to be turned on, it could act as a sleeper cell — gathering information until it had collected enough to sell. Any sound picked up could potentially be relayed to third party companies, which would then target the user with ads at a later time. This isn’t to say that Google or outside parties were spying on Nest Secure users — there is no evidence of that — but rather the potential exists.
Remember that Google stated, “The microphone has never been on, and is only activated when users specifically enable the option.” Does this not sound like a contradiction? If the microphone has never been turned on, why use the present tense “is only activated when users specifically enable the option” and not use the conditional tense “can only be activated if the user specifically enables the option?”
Maybe I’m splitting hairs here.
MI5, CIA Bypassed TV Mics Even When They Were Turned Off
In-home listening devices, such as Samsung Smart TVs, have been used to spy on individuals by intelligence agencies in both Britain and the United States.
Read More: MI5, CIA used Samsung Smart TVs to secretly listen-in on conversations: WikiLeaks
WikiLeaks revealed that both British and American intelligence agencies used an implant on Samsung TVs to secretly listen-in on user conversations.
Using MI5’s EXTENDING Tool, American counterparts at the CIA developed the listening implant tool code-named “Weeping Angel” to record audio on Samsung F Series Smart Televisions.
The scariest part? Even when the TV is off, the CIA and MI5 could still record audio using the aptly-named “Fake-off” recording feature.
“EXTENDING will continue to record audio, even whilst the TV appears to be off. This is achieved by intercepting the command for the TV to switch-off and turning off the TV screen, leaving the processor running,” according to the EXTENDING tool user’s manual.
The undisclosed presence of a microphone installed on Google Nest Secure puts users at greater risk for privacy violations — whether coming from targeted ads or from vulnerabilities that could be exposed by clever hackers, both foreign and domestic.