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January 21, 2014

Nest out to Protect Privacy: Policy Changes to be Clear and Opt-in

There were some who, when hearing about Google's recent acquisition of Nest, got concerned about privacy issues. Letting Google into the house was tantamount, to those concerned, to forking over heaps of data about the home: how often the furnace runs, where the temperature levels are set, and so on. But Tony Fadell, Nest's chief executive, set out to make some points very clear about issues of privacy for those who already have Nest devices installed in homes, and about how any changes might impact said users.

Fadell was recently spotted out at the DLD Conference in Munich, and gave an interview describing how users might be hit by the Google deal. Fadell detailed how there were to be no changes to current privacy issues, at least for now, and any data that was collected in the interim would be used as it was in the past: to improve the Nest product line according to the needs and use patterns of the user base. Fadell even took a bit of time on stage during the conference to make his position clear, saying “If there were ever any changes whatsoever, we would be sure to be transparent about it, number one, and number two for you to opt-in to it.”

Fadell was less forthcoming about the content of recent meetings between himself and Google top brass like Larry Page, effusing about the quality of said meetings in which “...we were finishing each other's sentences...” and how “...the visions that we had were just so large and so great, and they weren't scared by them.” This does suggest some exciting new territory afoot in terms of home automation, a development that's not too surprising for Google to get involved in given its recent pushes into the self-driving car market. If Google wants the car to drive itself, then why not have the home run its own operations as well?

But couched in these impressive ambitions is the ever-present issue of privacy. There's certainly something to be said for home automation—a lot of people enjoy the idea, and the sheer convenience factor of many home automation options is tough to refuse—but by like token, the issue of privacy is particularly important to people in the home. The home is something of a sacrosanct position in people's lives; there's a reason the saying goes that a man's home is his castle. Inviting automation tools into the home has some value but not at the cost of lost privacy. The home is the last bastion of privacy any more, the thing many refer to when the saying “behind closed doors” comes up. To lose that to home automation data gathering is a terrifying prospect.

The early word suggests that the Nest / Google combination won't have long-term privacy ramifications, but it's easy to see why people are being particularly vigilant about this potential threat to privacy as we know it. With the home commonly regarded as the last major frontier for privacy, protecting it is important to many. Yet Nest's offerings—both now and in the future—are tempting, tempting enough to put same on many shopping lists. Only time will tell, however, if inviting Nest into the home is ultimately inviting an end to privacy.

Edited by Cassandra Tucker

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