By Kevin Nangeroni
In today’s modern technology climate, it is often easy to assume that consumers do not actually care if the companies that produce their beloved products are invading their privacy with those products. In all too many instances, consumers appear ready to turn a blind eye to the fact that their enjoyment of these products comes at a heavy cost. In this spirit, many technology companies have become cavalier, if not intentionally deceptive, in creating and marketing their products. Most recently, it was revealed that Google’s Nest Secure home security system contained an internal microphone. In early March, Google stated that their Nest systems would be rolling out a feature that would allow consumers the ability to use voice-activated Google Assistance Technology. The point of contention stems from the fact that Google never mentioned the inclusion of a microphone in any product material for the device.
In response to the controversy, a Google spokesperson claimed the company had no intentions of being deceptive to consumers, and that the failure to disclose the microphone was simply an error. The company further explained that the inclusion of the microphone was for additional features in the future, such as alerting homeowners to broken glass. The potential for future improvement and features, however, does not explain why Google failed to disclose the microphone technology in the first place. The Nest Protect, another Google product that monitors smoke and carbon monoxide levels, also contains a microphone that some consumers were surprised to learn about. The key difference between the two products though, is that the Nest Protect microphone was openly expressed in all of the product’s marketing materials and product specifications.
U.S. Lawmakers have taken notice of the matter, and are currently in search of answers. The Senate Commerce Committee sent a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, seeking information on how the tech company failed to miss such a vital disclosure. Pichai is requested to appear before the Committee and speak to how such lapses in privacy rights continue to happen on the part of major companies. The committee reiterated that in today’s climate, it is crucial for companies like Google to be transparent and provide full disclosure as to the specifications of their products. Just last year, Google’s chief privacy officer, Keith Enright, appeared before a Senate Committee and stated: “transparency is a core value of our approach to serving users”. The recent actions taken by Google appear to contradict such declaratory statements. Senate Committee members argue that Google’s lack of disclosure is extremely concerning and raises questions as to how much emphasis the tech giant actually places on consumer transparency.
In isolated instances, companies like Google may be able to plead ignorance when it comes to failure to disclose product specifications that may violate the privacy of consumers. The real problem, however, is that these are not one-off scenarios, and Google has a documented history of negligently handling the privacy of consumers. In 2010, a German privacy agency uncovered that Google Street View cars were collecting emails from domestic Wi-Fi networks without the knowledge of the consumers. Again, Google denied any intent and explained that the collection of data was accidental and the data was not implemented into any of Google’s products. Additionally, in October of 2018, Google announced that it was shutting down its social network platform, Google+. A software flaw created a data leak of over 500,000 user accounts and allowed access to user privacy information by up to 438 third-party applications.
It is clear that Google has either not learned from their prior mistakes in negligence, or simply does not care, choosing instead to continue to operate through deceptive practices. Either way, it is past the point where Google may claim ignorance and try to explain that their lack of transparency is accidental. Consumers demand and expect to know how their products work, as well as when their privacy may be in jeopardy. As Senator Kamala Harris stated, “Americans shouldn’t have to fear that the products in their home could be spying on them.” The duty is on the technology companies to be better and provide the proper disclosures to consumers who may be unknowingly giving up their right to privacy.
Student Bio: Kevin Nangeroni is a second-year student at Suffolk University Law School. He is a staff member on the Journal of High Technology Law.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are the views of the author alone and do not represent the views of JHTL or Suffolk University Law School.