Big Brother Google? – Privacy Issues With Nest Acquisition

What interest does Google have in a company that makes thermostats? Not much now, but how long does "don't be evil" hold up?

What interest does Google have in a company that makes thermostats? Not much now, but how long does "don't be evil" hold up?

It’s no secret who you are, who your friends are, how long you talk to them, where you go online, and how you use your phone – at least not to Google.

The search-engine-turned-giant-business-model announced late Monday that it will acquire Nest Labs, a connected-device technology company, for $3.2 billion. Nest is best known for making smart thermostats and smoke alarms, co-founded by former Apple exec Tony Faddell (one of the original credited creators of the iPod).

Would this acquisition give Google and even more unprecedented insider look at every facet of your working-day life? It could certainly give a whole lot more data on energy usage in your home… but not immediately.

“I kind of think Google read ‘Big Brother’ and took it as a career goal.”

Already a top-of-mind question, Nest attempted to reassure the public immediately of privacy concerns, posting the following FAQ statement on their company website: 

“Will Nest customer data be shared with Google?
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.”

Robert Peck, who covers Google for SunTrust Robinson Humphrey says, according to Marketwatch, that a market of about 115 million households in the United States is the reason Google would be willing to pay for such a high price tag on a company that makes thermostats:

“It leads to this whole topic of ubiquity that Google wants to be present in. … It wants to be present and connect all those devices and be wherever it can be.”

Rob Enderle, president of technology researcher firm the Enderle Group, has a bleaker outlook on the acquisition:

“I kind of think Google read ‘Big Brother’ and took it as a career goal. … 

Long-term privacy concerns, given this is Google, would revolve around knowing when you are home and what you are doing there through the device sensors. Given Google’s hunger for information, future products would have far more sensors, cameras and other technologies that could eventually create privacy concerns.”

This is certainly not the first time questions have been raised regarding Google’s “unchecked power.”

Earlier last month, RapGenius, a music lyrics website, was blasted by Google into the furthest reaches of search result ranking on Christmas Day due to its “foray into irrelevant unnatural linking.”

A website like RapGenius relies on a high Search Engine Optimization (SEO) ranking in order to keep at the top of Google searches for music lyrics. Before this incident, RapGenius would show up within the first five or six results. After Google’s slam, RapGenius wouldn’t even show up in search results until about the sixth page… even if you were searching “RapGenius/Rap Genius.”

In a news post, the RapGenius team told the entire complicated story that began as a legal search strategy which turned into blatant link-baiting:

“The dubious-sounding “Rap Genius blog affiliate program”, the self-parodic used car salesman tone of the email to John, the lack of any discretion in the targeting of a partner – this all looked really bad. And it was really bad: a lazy and likely ineffective “strategy”, so over-the-top in its obviousness that it was practically begging for a response from Google.”

They spared no personal pride, couching nothing in damage-controlling language. 

Now that they’ve dropped the link-baiting, RapGenius has reappeared on the front page when you search its name, and the site will slowly repair itself until it is once again indexed on Google’s search rankings.

A happy ending on all counts, but as reported on the Wire, Matt Yglesias from Slate had this to say about the RapGenius fiasco:

As far as it goes, this is a happy ending. Rap Genius is a great site and it’d have been a shame for Google to somehow permanently cripple it. And an endless SEO arms race would be deeply undesirable, so it’s good to see Google enforcing some useful norms. But the larger question of Google’s vast and essentially unchecked power over the World Wide Web remains. “Don’t be evil” is a nice idea, and thus far I don’t see any indication that Google has used this power for anything other than good. But especially if Microsoft decides to cut its losses on Bing one of these days, antitrust issues are very likely to arise in this space.

What do you think Yglesias would have to say about the Nest acquisition?

About the author

Stephanie Tang

Avid PC gamer, long-time console lover. I enjoy shooting things in the face and am dangerously addicted to pretty. I'm also a cat.