Google and the security of the connected home

The man who invented the iPod now works for Google. Matt Warman asks what that means for the future of all our homes

Google is opening a virtual window into the secretive data centers that serve as its nerve center. The unprecedented peek is being provided through a new website. The site features photos from inside some of the eight data centers that Google Inc. already has running in the U.S., Finland and Belgium

Google’s $3.2bn purchase of Nest Labs means that the company that dominates the world’s web use on desktop and mobile now has a bridgehead into the homes of millions of Americans and thousands of Britons. But the sale should come as no surprise to anyone with an interest in the future of technology – the home is the new frontier.

Nest’s main product is a thermostat that learns how its users behave – that it calls itself ‘learning’ rather than ‘smart’ is a key difference. The Nest Protect smoke alarm is a more conventional ‘smart’ product, in the sense that it adds internet connectivity to a usually unconnected device. The thermostat takes advantage of, and in fact encourages, human niggling with settings that its predecessors have encouraged us all to set once and then leave alone.

Each time you tweak Nest, it is able to guess more accurately what you’ll want next time. Eventually, the idea is, you never actually need to touch it. The Protect, really, simply took a market opportunity – this is a smoke alarm that doesn’t go too mad every time you burn the toast, and it’s a lot easier to turn off when it does.

Both these gadgets came from Tony Fadell, who touted his idea for an MP3 player first to Real Networks and then to Apple. Rich enough, as he put it, to never need to work again even before he founded Nest, Fadell is a ‘product guy’ a designer who wants to make life-changing devices that sell in their millions.

So Google has bought an ace designer with his finger on the smart home pulse. In so far as Google makes products, no doubt Nest’s staff will be helpful. But of much more importance is Google’s eagerness to make the household as intelligent as your phone. Connect Nest to your phone, and it would be easy for the thermostat to deduce you don’t need the heating on because you’re on holiday. Subtle adjustments to the smoke alarm could take into account the fact you’re cooking, deduced from the fact you’re at home and scrolling through a recipe at a pace that matches putting the meal together.

The thermostat and the smoke alarm are not much beyond beta products, however, and yet there are already real security and software concerns. Some fear that the smart refrigerator is just something that will end up with ancient software that needs an update that never comes. Others worry that Google will know too much if it has everything from the temperature in your home to what you’re cooking, plus access to what you’re seeing through Google Glass.

Further concerns exist over the potential for smart homes to be hacked, although security is plainly in the commercial interests of the companies selling the products in the first place, and I doubt the NSA cares what I’m having for dinner.

The more likely outcome, as with all Google’s controversial products is however that we will decide the benefits outweigh risks that remain largely theoretical. After all, driverless cars mean Google will soon know almost everything about millions of people – if they have the added option to call the fire brigade because their smoke alarm indicates your house is burning down, many will decide not to complain. Smart ovens and washing machines will further reduce the burden of household chores – we will look back on today’s domestic appliances as we do now on mangles. With a designer such as Fadell, such necessities may even be nice to look at too.


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