After revelations that Google failed to let consumers know of a microphone in its Nest security devices, a longtime privacy advocacy group is calling on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to take action.
“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,” EPIC said in the letter, in part.
Google says the microphone on Nest devices is turned off by default and that any mic present in a Nest device only turns on if users enable the voice-activated Google Assistant.
Still, EPIC wants a federal commission to not only weigh in on privacy concerns, but to break the Nest business away from Google entirely.
“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,” EPIC wrote.
The request for Google to give up the smart-home hardware company it acquired in 2014 for over $3 billion is a bold one for the advocacy group, but this isn’t the first time EPIC has tried taking on Google.
In 2007, when Google started equipping fleets of cars around the world with digital cameras to take photographs for its Street View project, consumers were concerned over the invasiveness of the photos themselves.
But by May 2010, Google admitted it was doing something worse. The company said that in the process of collecting the street view photos, it was also collecting copious amounts of Wi-Fi data, including MAC addresses (the unique ID for Wi-Fi devices) and network SSIDs (the user-assigned network ID name).
That month, EPIC urged federal investigators to look into Google’s collection of Wi-Fi data and soon after, the FTC took up the case.
By October 2010, Google said it would stop collecting such sensitive information for its Street View project and apologized for doing so in the first place. The company also said its misstep was more egregious than initially reported, saying that in some cases emails, URLs, and passwords were captured and stored.
“We are mortified by what happened,” Alan Eustace, Senior VP of Engineering and Research wrote at the time. “But confident that these changes to our processes and structure will significantly improve our internal privacy and security practices for the benefit of all our users.”
That October, the FTC ended its investigation after the “assurances” Google provided that it would no longer collect such sensitive Wi-Fi data.
Now, with EPIC’s letter on Wednesday and lawmakers already criticizing Google for its failure to disclose proper information about its Nest devices, a federal investigation into the matter may actually come to fruition.
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