Why aren’t you scared of Nest Protect?

By Greg Stevens on October 9th, 2013

I’m disappointed in you. Nest, the startup launched by former Apple hardware engineer Tony Fadell, has launched a new product to much fanfare: Nest Protect. Yet I haven’t heard a single complaint from the privacy crusaders, the doomsday critics, or the tinfoil hat bloggers. What has happened to you? Why the sudden silence?

Nest Protect is a WiFi-enabled, smart phone app controlled “reimagining” of the lowly smoke detector. It is a friendly high-tech device that monitors every room in your house, talks in a human voice, communicates with your smart phone over Wi-Fi, can respond to the wave of your hand, and can even act as a friendly soothing night light. Of course, it has been met with orgasmic applause from technology media.

But now I’m speaking to the privacy paranoiacs: where were you? When Google announced Glass, you spent months wringing your hands, concerned that it would completely destroy all privacy everywhere and lead to a police state. When Verizon patented a device to detect movement in the room while you watch television, you pulled out your hair and moaned about all of the ways that this horrific device could be misused and abused.

You have always been on the forefront of negative forecasting, pointing out every possible paranoid way that any new technology might possibly be abused. And if it could not be abused, then at least how it might creep people out. You’ve always been there, with your tinfoil hat, ready and waiting.

Yet with the release of Nest Protect, there hasn’t been a peep.

There is plenty of fodder for privacy “enthusiasts” in the press release for this new device. The list of sensors that Nest has disclosed in Nest Protect is impressive: a smoke sensor, a carbon monoxide sensor, a heat sensor, a light sensor, ultrasonic sensors and activity sensors. It can be both controlled and monitored by your smart phone through Wi-Fi.

Of course, according to their marketing materials, the “activity sensors” will only be used for innocuous things. For example, if the alarm starts going off, which in this case means a creepy human voice talking to you rather than an actual alarm, you can shut it up simply by waving at it.

But delving into their reading material reveals something more: they tell you that during your first week of owning the device, you may have to wave a little longer than normal because Nest Protect is still “calibrating itself to the room”. Apparently it needs time to learn about the room that it is in, before it can be sure whether you are waving or not.

My dear privacy enthusiast: activity sensors? Storing movement data in order to learn what normal movements in the room are? Transmitting information about every light, sound and movement in your house via Wi-Fi to your phone… and who knows where else? Ladies and gentlemen, how can you possibly stay silent about the possible abuses of such a device?

Of course, I am speaking with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek. Nest Protect is probably a brilliant and innovative new device. Its biggest problem is likely to be something mundane, like the lifespan of the battery-operated models. (How exactly can it have continuous WiFi communication with your smart phone and also be a night light, and still have a reasonable battery life? I guess we will see.)

But there is still an interesting psychological question here. The blogosphere went nuts when Verizon suggested that they might want to detect “ambient activity” in a room while people watch television, in order to serve them better advertising. Nest Protect could have essentially the same capacity to monitor your every move while you are at home.

So why the silence now, privacy bloggers? Where have you all gone?

Is it possible that the answer is as simple as a difference in marketing? When a company wants to install an electronic All-Seeing Eye in order to serve you better advertising, it’s creepy; but when a company wants to install an electronic All-Seeing Eye that promises to do nothing more than be a friendly high-tech guard dog for your home, it’s just fine.

Guard dog is the correct metaphor to use here: do not be fooled into thinking that Nest is going to stop with smoke alarms. The company is on a path to build an entire ecosystem of intelligent home devices. Their first product, an “intelligent thermostat”, and the Nest Protect smoke detector are only the beginning. In the end, these devices will be integrated with security systems and other “intelligent” home conveniences that will ultimately know everything that goes on in your home.

But as long as Nest keeps marketing it correctly, people will never think it’s creepy. Figure out the psychological secret behind that, and you have hit the technology marketing jackpot.