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Will Nest Get Too Nosy?

Nest Labs may offer cool technology, but do we really want Google or anyone knowing everything that goes on in our homes? Home automation may indeed be a double-edged sword. Today, like children, we are excited and amazed at how tech can accomplish simple tasks. Will we still be happy down the road, when it crosses the line and invades our privacy?

This is the stuff that spooky sci-fi movies have been made of for years, but this is not fiction. Tech titillates us in the beginning, so we gobble it up. Only later does it start to invade our privacy. It starts out harmless and beneficial but, over time, it crosses the line. By then, it’s too late. There is no turning back.

No, I am not warning that technology companies will take over our world. That’s science fiction, or at least we hope it is. Who knows what the future holds?

The Boiling Frog

Not all companies or technologies are threats, but threats do develop over time as tech continually upgrades. We should start worrying now about what some companies will do with all the personal and private information they are gathering about us and will have at their disposal.

Everything starts out happy and exciting and innocent and helpful in a blissful la-la land.

Then, as technology improves and upgrades, at some point it may cross the line and start to invade our privacy. By then, users are already so entrenched, they don’t leave. It happens little by little. It’s like the allegory of the boiling frog — if you turn up the heat on the stove gradually enough, the frog doesn’t know it’s getting cooked.

That’s the problem. If customers fled when their privacy was invaded, then companies would think twice. However, users stay put. They complain, but they don’t leave. So companies keep going further and further. Bit by bit, they turn up the temperature until we are cooked.

Just think about the increasing number of companies and cases in the news over the last few years. They are really starting to add up to a frightening story.

It’s even getting to the point where governments are starting to push back. For example, the European Union recently ordered Google to delete links to personal or private information that hurts users, on request.

Facebook is another example. It started out as a way for friends to keep in touch, but over time many have complained about the ways it invades their privacy. People say terms of use have changed, allowing private information to become publicly available.

I am not saying Google and Facebook have no place. Actually, I really like them. They do provide excellent service and help users get information and stay in touch. But when your big, lovable dog nips at the neighborhood kids, it’s up to you to do something.

There is always a line that should not be crossed, and users should make sure companies stay on the right side of it — or leave until they correct their mistake.

If users don’t hold a company’s feet to the fire, governments will have to step in as a last resort — and that’s something no one really wants.

The problem is that users almost get hypnotized. They love technology — so they may complain about its abuses, but they don’t leave. Step by step, companies cross over more and more, until we are cooked.

Is Google’s Nest another example?

A Spy Among Us?

Nest Labs makes smart home technology, and I love the idea. The company started with a smart home thermostat. It watches and learns and then programs itself so your house is comfortably heated or cooled whenever you’re there. It also saves you money when you’re not there.

Sounds great, right? It makes perfect sense. It lets technology solve problems and improve our lives.

Then what’s the problem? Well, all advanced technology starts out that way — making something about life better.

Nest was acquired by Google in February. Now Nest has announced a new collaboration with Google that may be the beginning of its learning even more about us.

Is it crossing the line yet? To some, the answer is yes. To others, not yet — but it is right up to the line. The next step may be too far.

Would you want your thermostat learning about you and sharing that information over the Internet with Google or any other company? I can’t imagine you’d say yes if you think about the next step, then the next.

Matt Rogers, a cofounder of Nest, said Google will start to connect some of Nest’s app data so it knows when users are home, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Does that really sound OK to you? This is just the beginning with Nest. While innovation is key, invasion of privacy should always be guarded against — and that is what is being ignored.

Rogers says Nest is not becoming part of the greater Google machine.

However, I would say that may be true today, but what about tomorrow? We have always learned the hard way that here are never any guarantees.

Bit by bit, we get cooked.

It’s time to recognize that every technological breakthrough is a two-sided coin.

One side is an amazing technology that takes our breath away.

However, the other side takes our privacy away and leaves us as exposed as the naked king in the old Hans Christian Andersen story, The Emperor’s New Clothes.

So who is in control? Is it us — or are we getting cooked, bit by bit?

Jeff Kagan

E-Commerce Times columnist Jeff Kagan is a technologyindustry analyst and consultant who enjoys sharing his colorful perspectives on the changing industry he's been watching for 25 years. Email him at [email protected].

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