Google's move into home automation means even less privacy

Plans by subsidiary Nest to share info with the search giant is the tip of the iceberg

Smart thermostat maker Nest Labs plans to soon start sharing some customer data with Google, its corporate parent, and that means the search engine giant will have to address users' privacy concerns as it expands into the home automation market.

On Monday, Nest unveiled a program to allow third parties to integrate their devices and appliances with the company's smart thermostats and smoke detectors.

The goal is to help people create fully connected homes in which a multitude of devices and appliances can communicate securely with each other to manage energy consumption and enhance safety and convenience.

For instance, if a Nest system were integrated with a fitness wristband or with a car's onboard computer system, the Nest thermostat would know to adjust its temperature setting accordingly when the wristband reports that the wearer has woken up, or when the car sends an alert indicating that the user has arrived home or is leaving.

Several companies have already announced plans to participate in the Nest developer program, including Mercedes Benz, Whirlpool, fitness band maker Jawbone, Logitech and Chamberlain, a maker of home lighting controls and smartphone-based garage door openers. In fact, more than 5,000 developers have expressed interest in participating in the developer program, according to Nest.

One of them is Google. Soon, people will be able to use apps like Google Now to set their Nest thermostats or to let the technology know when they are at home or away.

"Just speak a command, 'OK Google. Set Nest to 75 degrees,' and your Nest Thermostat will do as you say," Nest said in a statement announcing the developer program. "With Google Now, you can be on your way home, and your thermostat will start heating or cooling before you get there."

To make all of this happen, Nest will have to share at least some customer information with the partners it's working with under the developer program. For example, with Google Now linked to Nest, Google will have information on when and whether a Nest user is at home or not, Nest co-founder Matt Rogers said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

What's not fully clear is exactly how much information Nest will need to share with partners. Nest itself appears to be cognizant of the privacy concerns surrounding its purchase by Google earlier this year for $3.2 billion.

Nest has insisted that it will not share information until a user explicitly agrees to allow it to do so, and that even then it will share only a limited amount of data. Each company that partners with Nest will have to let users know exactly what information it is requesting and why, so users have a clear idea of what is going on.

Nest will also limit the amount of data held by developers, ensure that no personally identifiable information is shared and give users the ability to opt-out at any time. And it has been very careful to position Google as just another partner in its developer ecosystem with no special privileges to its customer data.

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