Industry News Smart Home

Google in hot water after not revealing it had hidden a secret microphone in home alarm product

As if some folks weren’t concerned enough about the infiltration of potentially privacy-busting devices into the home, Google has admitted it did not disclose that it hid a secret microphone inside one of its products.

Owners of the Nest Secure were surprised earlier this month to read an announcement from Google that it was adding a new voice control feature to its home alarm product:

“Starting today, we’re adding a feature to Nest Secure to do just that: the Google Assistant will be available on your Nest Guard, so you can ask it questions like, “Hey Google, do I need an umbrella today?” before you set your alarm and leave the house.* Nest Guard is the brains of your Nest Secure; it contains a keypad and all the smarts that power the system. It’s usually placed in a spot with lots of traffic (like the front doorway) making it useful as you come and go.”

Why the surprise? Well, until then nobody had known that the Nest Secure alarm was capable of listening to anything.

Sure, it could sense motion in your household, it could know if a door or window was open, and even allow you to remotely turn your home alarm on. But nobody knew, and Google chose never to tell anyone, that there was a microphone hidden within the device.

A microphone that could be enabled via a software update.

Google says it goofed by keeping the microphone secret:

“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.”

It went on to explain to Business Insider that it’s not unusual for security systems to have built-in microphones:

“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.”

And I accept that there are good reasons why some people may want their home security systems to have microphones. But it seems underhand of me for a company to build a microphone into its device and not tell anyone about it.

With a growing tide of concern over IoT security and privacy, and the amount of personal data gobbled up by tech giants, it seems very shortsighted for Google to have overlooked revealing the existence – even if unused – of a hidden listening device.

Amazon and Google are market leaders when it comes to home assistants, and there are millions of folks who have excitedly placed them in their homes. However, there are also plenty of folks who shudder at the thought of what they view as devices spying on them, and their strongly-held opinions should be respected.

About the author

Graham CLULEY

Graham Cluley is an award-winning security blogger, researcher and public speaker. He has been working in the computer security industry since the early 1990s, having been employed by companies such as Sophos, McAfee and Dr Solomon's. He has given talks about computer security for some of the world's largest companies, worked with law enforcement agencies on investigations into hacking groups, and regularly appears on TV and radio explaining computer security threats.

Graham Cluley was inducted into the InfoSecurity Europe Hall of Fame in 2011, and was given an honorary mention in the "10 Greatest Britons in IT History" for his contribution as a leading authority in internet security.

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  • As an electronics engineer (rtd) I'd have considered it a great idea to include a 5 cent (in large quantities) microphone against the day we *could* develop and download voice response software to the device. I wouldn't even have thought that people could point a finger at me and call me evil.