Google’s Nest buy will force an Internet of Things privacy debate

Forrester Research

This morning, as I was writing this blog post, I got an email from one of my colleagues, saying "Is it weird that since Google bought Nest, I no longer want one?" Her sentiment isn't that unusual because, as it turns out, plenty of people feel like Google + Nest = HAL. (It's hard to miss the resemblance).


Graph for Google’s Nest buy will force an Internet of Things privacy debate

My colleague Frank Gillett just published a post outlining a collection of ten key thoughts about the acquisition. As the privacy-identity-personal data wonk advising Forrester's marketing strategy clients, I thought I'd drill down on some of the more salient points for those issues. 

It goes without saying that Nest Labs have figured out mainstream home automation better than most other firms. But to date, the company hasn't had any strong identity authentication built into its services. That means, for example, that my partner and I can't set different temperature preferences that Nest automatically implements when we're both home - but in different rooms. By making Google authentication and identity the protocol for sharing data, preferences, and permissions across these devices - part of what we call personal identity management - this will soon be a reality.

The next step? The ability to grant others (eg: guests or house sitters) temporary access to your Nest, hotels with Nest technology built into their rooms, and even algorithmically optimised climates based on the actual people in a given room. The catch? In order for consumers to take advantage of these services, they'll have to have a Google ID connected to their mobile and/or wearable devices. That's a major win for the internet giant, and gives it a leg up in the race to build the database of affinity.

Meanwhile, I suspect that Google will fold Nest into its Robotics and AI divisions. (Remember, Nest thinks of itself as a robotics company, and its VP of Technology is a reknowned neurotics and robotics researcher.) Bringing these teams together could help Google lay the groundwork for connected homes. We'll have Android OS running on most of our connected devices, GoogleHub as the "master system" on which all our devices are registered, GoogleNow helping us plan and optimise our every moment and every personal space, and even a GoogleBot actually executing tasks. This won't happen tomorrow, or even next year, but Google finally has a well-adopted consumer device to start testing scenarios with, and collecting real user data about what works and what doesn't. 

Of course, all of this brings us to the elephant in the room: once Google is embedded in our homes, a whole new host of privacy issues arise. Google will have to take a completely different approach to privacy than any other enterprise out there. Why? Because they now have access to more contexts - identity and spatial, primarily - than anyone ever has. There are myriad scenarios they'll need to deal with, including:

  • If I'm a Nest owner, and I grant a houseguest access to my device, who "owns" the data she generates? Do I have the right to monitor my guests as they walk around my home, simply because I've granted them access to my device network?
  • What if businesses start to install Nest thermostats and sensors? Do they have the right to triangulate my smartphone or wearable IP with the sensor data? Who's responsible for defining the appropriate rules here?
  • How long should this type of superfine-grain location data be stored, and can I block its collection, and/or have the right to delete it at any time? 
  • Where should the data be stored? Locally, on a master device network, or in Google's massive cloud servers? 
  • Which user's identity is the "master box" for the system? In other words, if three people are in the same room with different temperature -- or lighting, or music volume, or TV display -- preferences, who wins? 

Obviously, only time will tell how Google will handle these issues, but I truly hope they take Forrester's Contextual Privacy research to heart as they design these systems and products. It's the only way they'll ever really be able to leverage the massive investments they're making in The Internet of Things.

Fatemeh Khatibloo is a Forrester analyst who serves customer insights professionals. This post was originally published on Forrester's blog network. Republished with permission.