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

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While those are exactly the kind of steps Nest needs to take to assuage privacy concerns, Google's presence is sure to cast a shadow over every move the company makes.

As Nest's owner, Google has ultimate control over the customer data collected by the smart thermostat maker.

And Nest's purchase of video monitoring company Dropcam earlier this month potentially gives Google control over an even broader set of consumer data.

The search engine giant's spotty record when it comes to handling consumer data -- it has a reputation for trying to monetize customer data every chance it gets -- is one reason privacy groups are expected to keep a close eye on the growing ties between Google and Nest.

Google has already let it be known that its plan is to someday start delivering targeted ads on almost any Internet-connected device. In a letter to the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) last December, Google described a future where it and other companies could serve targeted advertisements on refrigerators, car dashboards, thermostats, digital glasses and watches. Many of those appliances and devices are ones that Nest plans to integrate with its thermostats under the developer program.

Neither Nest nor Google is alone in going after the home automation market. Apple's HomeKit technology, for instance, will enable the same kind of interconnectivity and interactivity between home appliances and devices. And several established vendors of home security systems are headed in the same direction.

But few can match Google when it comes to the sheer amount of consumer data that it controls or can access.

Lee Tien, senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), said it's too early to predict the privacy implications of the Google and Nest moves. "But it's not too early for consumers to be careful," he said.

There's always a privacy risk when the focus of the information sharing is about an individual's location. "One's presence or absence from home is sensitive in a couple of ways," Tien said. That's especially true if that information is retained long enough to detect patterns that could reveal when a person is likely to be home -- or not.

"Information about the home and the activities therein are generally highly protected," he said. "After all, one's home is supposed to be one's castle."

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at  @jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His email address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

See more by Jaikumar Vijayan on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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