Sen. Warner blasts Google for hidden Nest microphone: Federal agencies and Congress 'must have hearings to shine a light on the dark underbelly of the digital economy'

  • On Tuesday, Google apologised for not disclosing to consumers that its Nest security system – specifically, its Nest Guard device – contained a microphone that, when enabled, can listen to users’ voices and sync with its Assistant product.
  • Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told Business Insider in a statement on Wednesday that Google’s failure to disclose information about its microphone was “totally at odds with consumer expectations.”
  • “Both responsible federal agencies and the U.S. Congress must have hearings to shine a light on the dark underbelly of the digital economy, including how incumbents are shaping the smart home ecosystem in potentially unfair and anti-competitive ways,” Warner said.
  • The Nest Guard has been on the market since 2017, but news of the microphone’s existence surfaced only when the company announced the Assistant integration in early February.

On Tuesday, Google apologised for not disclosing to consumers that its Nest security system – specifically, its Nest Guard device – contains a microphone that, when enabled, can listen to users’ voices and sync with its Assistant product.

Now, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wants answers.

“This is totally at odds with consumer expectations,” Warner, a Democrat, told Business Insider in a statement on Wednesday. “The standard talking point that consumers ‘don’t care about privacy’ has been increasingly disproven, as we learn that consumers and policymakers have been kept in the dark for years about data collection and commercialization practices.”

The Nest Guard has been on the market since 2017, but news of the microphone’s existence surfaced only when the company announced the Assistant integration in early February.

“The on-device microphone was never intended to be a secret and should have been listed in the tech specs,” a Google spokesperson told Business Insider on Tuesday. “That was an error on our part.”


Read more:


Google says the built-in microphone it never told Nest users about was ‘never supposed to be a secret’

Warner said that federal hearings may need to take place to bring more answers to consumer questions about their smart-home devices.

“Both responsible federal agencies and the U.S. Congress must have hearings to shine a light on the dark underbelly of the digital economy, including how incumbents are shaping the smart home ecosystem in potentially unfair and anti-competitive ways,” Warner said.

Another member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, told Business Insider on Wednesday that he’s also concerned about the implications for consumers when companies hide important information about their technology.

“Every sensor in every electronic device should be clearly identified to consumers prior to purchase,” Wyden said. “Americans may choose to put various sensors in their homes or in their pockets for the utility they offer, but they must always know they’re doing it, and it must always be a choice.”

New hearings with top tech execs may be on the horizon

Last December, Google CEO Sundar Pichai spoke before the House Judiciary Committee, answering questions about the tech giant’s secretive efforts to build a censored search engine for China and allegations of conservative bias in the company’s search results.

Months earlier, Google cofounder and Alphabet CEO Larry Page was called to testify in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee along with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, though Page declined to appear. The move drew criticism from a number of Senators, including Warner, who said at the time that he was “extremely disappointed” in Google’s decision not to send a representative.

Nest GuardNestThe Nest Guard.

“I know our members have a series of difficult questions about structural vulnerabilities on a number of Google’s platforms that we will need answered,” Warner said back in September. “From Google Search, which continues to have problems surfacing absurd conspiracies … To YouTube, where Russian-backed disinformation agents promoted hundreds of divisive videos … To Gmail, where state-sponsored operatives attempt countless hacking attempts, Google has an immense responsibility in this space.”

With Google’s microphone misstep this week and the rapid adoption of smart-home devices among consumers, a new hearing with tech’s top execs may be on the horizon.

Here is the full statement from Warner:

“This is totally at odds with consumer expectations. The standard talking point that consumers ‘don’t care about privacy’ has been increasingly disproven, as we learn that consumers and policymakers have been kept in the dark for years about data collection and commercialization practices. Both responsible federal agencies and the U.S. Congress must have hearings to shine a light on the dark underbelly of the digital economy, including how incumbents are shaping the smart home ecosystem in potentially unfair and anti-competitive ways.”

Got a tip? Contact this reporter via Signal at +1 (209) 730-3387, email at [email protected], or Twitter DM at @nickbastone.

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