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Smart Homes 101

It’s safe to say that computers have permeated every aspect of our lives. These days, our refrigerators are connected to our lights and have started sharing data with our smartphones and everything is linked.

The connected computing environment in 2014 is much different than it’s been in years past, as devices that we never dreamed of putting online have suddenly jumped onto the internet. Just consider that we now have thermostats that are able to think and our home alarm systems that can be activated from an iPad on a café table, halfway across the world.

Nest Labs

Nest Labs is currently one of the biggest names in the connected device market. It was acquired by Google for a hefty $3.2 billion back in early 2014. Nest is best known for its Nest Learning Thermostat – a handsome looking, internet-connected home control from former Apple designers. The thermostat is able to track and learn your living habits in order to help save you money on energy use over time.

For those familiar with Google, it’s pretty clear how Nest’s products – such as Nest Protect, a smoke alarm – are aligned with the Mountain View, CA-based tech giant’s objective “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

After all, these search queries and Gmail messages are just a reflection of our world, largely made up of information that users choose to put into it. The idea is that if you really want to learn about the world, you have to go to the source. But what will this mean for how user data is being collected, shared, used and even abused?

Nest Sharing

In June, Nest announced that it would be sharing some user information with Google for the first time since acquisition. Co-founder Matt Rogers said that Google would connect some of its apps to Nest, allowing Google to know when Nest users are at home or not.

This integration will allow users to set the temperature of their homes with voice commands to a Google mobile app. It will also allow Google’s personal digital assistant, Google Now, to set the temperature automatically when it detects – via a smartphone and its location-tracking abilities – that the user is returning home.

According to Rogers, users will need to opt in for this kind of information to be shared with Google. He insists, “We’re not becoming part of the greater Google machine.”

This announcement comes at the same time as Nest seeks out developers of appliances, light fixtures, garage door openers and more to access user information and enable Nest to create the operating system for the so-called “smart home.”

Privacy Expectations

All this data sharing, especially with tech giants like Google, automatically raises questions about user privacy. Gartner analyst Brian Blau asks, “What will happen to all this data? That is something that Google and Nest will have to be careful about. There’s a higher expectation of privacy when you are in your home.”

Rogers tried to defend its position during the acquisition: “Our privacy policy clearly limits the use of customer information to providing and improving Nest’s products and services. We’ve always taken privacy seriously and this will not change.”

Most of the data Nest intends to share focuses on whether users are at home or not. This would be detected by sensors on the thermostat. When people link a home device and related account with Nest, the company will not share email addresses, names or home addresses with other companies. Each company linking to Nest – including Google – will have to write to users explaining what data they are using and how they will use the information. There will, of course, be a way to un-link the devices from nest with one click through its mobile app.

Other Voices

For the time being, privacy watchdogs haven’t said much about Nest’s information sharing agreement with Google. Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy at the Center for Democracy and Technology, commented that much would depend on how well Nest communicates to users what information they would be sharing. He said, “People should be in control of their own information.” As long as Nest users are appropriately informed and opt-in to these new service plans, the potential for privacy violation should be minimized.

While it’s not clear if Google would be capturing much new information about its users, Rogers points out that Nest isn’t doing anything outrageous. “We’re not telling Google anything that it doesn’t already know,” he said.

Summary

Nest Labs is a developer of connected home devices, such as thermostats and smoke alarms. The company was recently acquired by tech giant, Google, and has since announced plans to begin sharing information with its corporate parent.

CIPP Exam Preparation

In preparation for the Certified Information Privacy Professional/Information Technology (CIPP/IT) exam, a privacy professional should be comfortable with topics related to this post, including:

  • Privacy expectations (II.A.)
  • Privacy by policy (III.B.)
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