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Privacy group urges feds to force Google to dump Nest

A privacy group that had opposed Google’s acquisition of Nest is urging the Federal Trade Commission to force Google to divest of the company after hidden microphones were discovered in Nest’s home security and alarm system.

Business Insider reported consumers had not been informed of the microphones in Nest Secure, which linked to the Google “Assistant” artificial intelligence-powered device.

Google, in a statement, acknowledged the “error” and said “the on-device microphone was never intended to be a secret and should have been listed in the tech specs.”

Nest Guard is the alarm, keypad and motion-sensor component of the Nest Secure system offering.

Google claimed the microphone “was originally included in the Nest Guard for the possibility of adding new security features down the line, like the ability to detect broken glass.”

“Still, even if Google included the microphone in its Nest Guard device for future updates – like its Assistant integration – the news comes as consumers have grown increasingly wary of major tech companies and their commitment to consumer privacy,” the report said.

It’s not the first time Google has confessed to a major privacy invasion.

The company admitted its fleet of “Street View” cars had “accidentally” personal data from individuals’ WiFi networks.

Google had purchased Nest – initially known for its thermostat device – in 2014 for about $3.2 billion.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation said, when Google’s hidden microphone was revealed, “No product should ever come with a secret microphone, regardless of whether or not it’s enabled. That’s just bad security design.”

Now the Electronic Privacy Information Center has asked the FTC to require Google to spin off Nest and to release and remove data obtained from Nest users.

“It is a federal crime to intercept private communications or to plant a listening device in a private residence,” the organization said. “In 2014, EPIC filed a complaint with the commission regarding a related merger review and noted specifically that the ‘Commission clearly failed to address the significant privacy concerns presented in the Google acquisition of Nest.'”

The organization’s letter to FTC Chairman Joe Simons said: “We write to you about the reports that Google installed secret microphones in Nest Secure devices. Consumers recently discovered that the home security system contained a hidden microphone after Nest announced a software update that allows Nest devices to double as Google Home Assistants. It is entirely unclear whether Google, a remote hacker, or anyone else enabled the microphones in the Nest devices after they were installed by customers in their homes.”

The letter points out the previous warning.

“In 2014, EPIC filed a complaint with the commission regarding a related merger review and noted specifically that the ‘commission clearly failed to address the significant privacy concerns presented in the Google acquisition of Nest.’ EPIC said at the time that the ‘early termination’ approval of the Google/Nest merger was surprising given the commission’s extensive consideration of the Google acquisition of Doubleclick.

“The commission should have conducted a more rigorous review. And Google’s claim that this as an oversight is hard to take seriously after it revealed, over the company’s strenuous objections, that the company’s ‘Street View’ vehicles were intercepting wireless communications and downloading passwords and private emails.

“But it is not too late. The FTC should now commence an enforcement action against Google with the aim of divesting the company of Nest and requiring also that Google disgorge the data it wrongfully obtained from Nest customers,” the letter said.

The letter also was copied to the attorney general, “regarding possible violations of the Federal Wiretap Act.”