Do we care if Google pokes around in our houses?

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  • “Trying to hold back that information flow is very difficult.”
  • “Will they mine the data of people's lifestyles?”
  • “They’re not going after energy savings — they’re going after marketing data.”
  • We’ve given up all expectations of privacy when we’re out in public and now it looks like we’re willing to give it up in our homes.

 

 

“That boat has sailed,” is the way Geoff Godwin, vice president of marketing for the White Rodgers unit of Emerson Climate Technologies, characterized possible invasions of privacy created by Google’s purchase of Nest Labs. “Trying to hold back that information flow is very difficult.”

Google bought Nest as a way to get into people’s houses. Saving energy with a connected smart thermostat is just incidental to the fact that they’re in your house.

“A lot of the comments [i.e., the Internet chatter] about the acquisition center around people’s personal data and protecting private data,” Godwin said. “As part of Google, Nest would provide yet another connection point for Google to get data.”

“Will they mine the data of people's lifestyles?” mused Martha’s Vineyard mechanical contractor Brian Nelson. “There’s lots of chatter on the Web about how Google and Nest will have to build trust so that folks will want to sign up for Google supervision of their Nest thermostat. I see this as a reasonable discussion that comes with the amazing power of having Internet access to your thermostat.

“Here’s a humorous paranoid thought,” Nelson continued. “Will Google sell the potential service call or freeze up notification that they get from a Nest thermostat to the highest bidder and then the homeowner gets numerous calls from HVAC contractors who they don't know?”

Pick your cliché. That horse is out of the barn. And Google will know it and send you a text message to look for your horse.

“They’re not going after energy savings — they’re going after marketing data,” said contractor and engineer Bill Shady, P.E., Santa Cruz, Calif. “It’s all about the Internet connection and the data; it’s a window into your life. That’s why Google is in there. It’s data mining. If they know the trends, then they can target advertising toward you. They could have all your IP addresses. The message they’re putting out is about this being in the interest of energy savings, but it’s really more about the connected world.”

Tony Uttley, vice president and general manager of Honeywell’s Home Comfort and Energy Systems Business, told us about all the good (and legitimate) things that Honeywell controls could do for a home — energy savings, security and life safety. Judging from the reaction to Google’s announcement of the Nest purchase, more than a few people worry that Google wants to know when you come through your front door, when you turn on the TV, and what’s in your refrigerator. Remember hearing about Internet connected refrigerators? You can scan in your purchases as you put them away and your refrigerator can keep track of when you’re running out of Camembert and Nutella. That is, if anybody really wants to scan in her groceries, although I’m sure there’s somebody who would do this. Imagine if Google had access to this information.

Do we even care? Edward Snowden announced that the NSA was snooping around in our sock drawers and America gave a collective shrug. We’ve given up all expectations of privacy when we’re out in public and now it looks like we’re willing to give it up in our homes.

I had a college professor who posited that if anything were technologically possible, it would be done, even if it were unethical, immoral, creepy and, perhaps, even illegal. Moreover, there’s money to be made here mining marketing data.

Uttley said the decision will be made by the market, by which systems homeowners buy. I’m hoping that Americans opt for the system that can give them energy savings but I fear that they’ll buy the one that knows they watch SportsCenter and use Listerine.

Connect with me on Twitter @bobmader

Here's an update on something I just read January 27. The website re/code is reporting that Google is buying an artificial intelligence startup called Deep Mind for $400 million. Google is buying Deep Mind's talent, the website reported. The company was founded by a games prodigy/neuroscientist and has been aggressively recruiting other talent. Somehow I find this every bit as creepy as Google knowing what we're doing in our homes.

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Robert Mader

Bob Mader is the editor of CONTRACTOR magazine, Green Mechanical Contractor magazine, and Radiant Living magazine. He has been writing about plumbing, mechanical, green building and HVACR topics for...
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