Google Does Good Privacy Thing, Users Revolt

Google Does Good Privacy Thing, Users Revolt

If you own a Google Nest cam, you recently got an email from corporate explaining that you’ll no longer be able to turn off the status light on your camera. The status light is that little green glow that lets you as well as strangers know that a camera (and possibly a human) is watching (and possibly recording). Nest says that it’s preventing people from turning off this light in order to protect people’s privacy, and boy do Nest users hate this.

The Nest community forums lit up as soon as Google announced the changes. Nearly all of the recent conversations at the time of this writing are Nest users expressing outrage over the change in functionality. For example, here’s the header on one thread: “Is anyone else absolutely disgusted with Nest/Google’s decision to disable status light settings?” Absolutely disgusted. Many of these users are demanding full refunds for their Nest Cams, arguing that this new policy is not what they signed up for when they bought the devices.

Google actually first announced this update to Nest’s status light at its I/O developers conference earlier this year, but it appears that the backlash only started when it informed all Nest users about the update.

“As part of our commitment to privacy, we explained that you would always see a clear visual indicator when your Nest cameras are on and sending video and audio to Google,” a Google spokesperson told Gizmodo. “We’re rolling out the following changes that no longer allow you to turn off the visual indicators on Nest Cam, Dropcam and Nest Hello.”

In some respects, the common complaints from these outraged users seem reasonable. Many point out that preventing users from turning off the status light just means that potential thieves and villains will be able to spot the cameras more easily.

Nest says that the software update that will disable the status light disabling will also include a new option to dim the light. But even dim lights can be seen, especially in the dark. In some posts, users claim that that the new privacy feature is “the exact opposite of privacy” and arguing that prevent people from properly hiding their cameras means that strangers can readily invade their privacy.

Privacy advocates might disagree with this logic. That status light is surely designed not only so that you know what your camera is doing but also so that your houseguests realise they’re being monitored and recorded. In other words, it’s a clear indication that data about them is being collected, which is likely the clause in Google’s updated privacy and security policy that prompted the change.

The change also comes after a frightful number of reports that creeps have been hiding wireless cameras in Airbnbs, aeroplane bathrooms, hotels, and pretty much anywhere humans might not want to get spied on.

In fact, it was a status light on a camera an aeroplane bathroom that prompted an alarmed passenger to alert the crew. The guy suspected of illegally installing the camera was later arrested.

So Google is taking a step toward transparency in data collection, and many people would agree that’s a good thing. However, some say that the company could go even further in alerting folks about the presence of recording devices. It could be as simple as a better choice of colours.

“As a general matter, it is a good practice to alert people who are subject to surveillance,” Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) told Gizmodo. “But it is very odd that Google has chosen green instead of red as the colour to indicate monitoring. By tradition, video recording devices, including television studio cameras, would display red to indicate recording as a warning.”

Rotenberg added, “In Google’s world, surveillance requires not a warning but an assurance that all is well. Hence, green.” Although it’s worth pointing out that the use of a red light in electronics has historically indicated that the devices like TVs are in standby mode since some of them can only be completed powered off by unplugging them from the wall. One could still argue that the Nest cam is a camera first and a gadget second. 

The Nest status light thing is a nudge in the direction of privacy for everyone that we might hope to see from all tech companies. The compulsory status light also addresses a prior controversy, which was sparked by researchers revealing that Nest cameras never completely power down when they’re in “off” mode.

Nest later clarified that the camera did stop recording and broadcasting video after the user turned it off through the app, but it continued to draw power so that it can turn on quickly when the user flips the switch. At that time, users could still turn off the status light, which surely led some to wonder when exactly a Nest cam was monitoring them.

Nest also dealt with plenty of blowback earlier this year, when it was revealed that its Nest Secure home security system included a built-in microphone that was not listed in the product’s specs.

The problem was that Nest never informed consumers that there was a microphone installed in the device. It was only after Google announced that Google Assistant support was coming to Nest Secure that people realised there was this extra microphone in their home. So in light of all this confusion, it’s not a terrible surprise that Google is now taking additional steps to make it very clear when Nest products are watching and recording.

Now obviously there’s a workaround to the new always-on status light: tape. Folks who are worried about burglars spotting their cameras can just slam a tiny piece of electrical tape over that light, the same way that paranoid laptop users cover up their webcams with tape or stickers. Folks are also free to paint their Nest cams in various camouflage patterns and hide them in bushes to avoid detection.

They just should just know that secretly recording someone with a hidden camera in an area where they have a reasonable expectation of privacy is fairly illegal.