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The Internet of Things: Will our devices spy on us?

Hal 9000

We earlier reported on Google’s acquisition of Nest for $3.2 billion. Nest, which creates thermostats that automatically adjust temperature based on a user’s proximity, interfaces with devices like smartphones and via the web. Nest also has proximity sensors that can sense whether there is someone about, and will adjust the heat accordingly.

Three billion is dollars a lot of money for a household appliance. At first glance, it seems that Google may have overpaid for the startup, which had been lauded as one of the recent years’ success stories in innovation and re-invention. However, upon deeper analysis, Google might simply be tying up loose ends in its plan to dominate the connected world.

Everything connected

In a recent feature, I discussed how Google’s Nest acquisition is more about the Internet of Things than it is about household appliances. Google already dominates the smartphone market, with Android having an 80 percent share worldwide. Android is also on the rise in the tablet market, with an increasing share, especially in the low-cost space.

Meanwhile, Google is already making inroads into the automotive industry, particularly with its involvement in the new Open Automotive Alliance. The OAA aims to standardize computing interfaces in vehicles — devices that have mostly been cumbersome to use and manage to date. What else is left for Google to dominate than actual things that are connected with each other, then?

Google in every home

With Nest, Google will have the chance to have an inexpensive connected appliance in every home (or at least every home that installs the thermostat), which brings a slew of possibilities in tracking, context awareness and perhaps even keeping tabs on individuals and families. Nest will be able to “talk” with your smartphone, tablet, connected car, and soon connected TVs and other appliances.

Nest says its data gathering activities are meant for “providing and improving Nest’s products and services.” However, there’s probably no stopping Google from leveraging the data collected from households and individuals and using these in its own marketing and advertising campaigns. Some Android apps already have blanket authority to activate the microphone and camera without further approval (take Facebook Messenger, for instance). How difficult can it be for other apps and appliances to also do the same?

There is always a trade-off between convenience and privacy, between speed and security. Appliances like Nest make it easier to manage our household and our expenses. It’s an install-and-forget device — you are essentially letting a device take control the smaller things in life (the temperature at home). You forget it’s there, but you might forget that it also has the ability to keep watch, a la Big Brother.

Are we already vulnerable?

To some extent, we are already vulnerable with our smartphones and other connected devices. But having a more permanent fixture in our abodes increases the potential for misuse and abuse, and not only from Google or whoever controls the platform. How about fake apps and malware apps that come with spyware as a payload. Google can only do so much in ensuring the security of apps on Google Play, and the company is often reactive rather than proactive in preventing malware on the application store.

How bad will it be once malware is able to attack critical systems at home, such as energy and security? Can malicious hackers overload our electrical systems at home? Can they cause physical harm or discomfort if they can hack our home appliances?

Google has been connecting people in innovative ways. It seems its acquisition of a connected appliance signals the shift to connecting things as the next focus in innovation. The question now is how intrusive the Internet of Things can be for us humans.