big brother

Google Wants to Be Your Roommate

PROVO, UT - JANUARY 16: In this photo illustration, a Nest thermostat is seen on January 16, 2014 in Provo, Utah. Google bought Nest, a home automation company, for $3.2 billion taking Google further into the home ecosystem. (Photo Illustration by George Frey/Getty Images)
“Yeah, I’m calling about your Craigslist ad?” Photo: George Frey/Getty Images

When Google bought Nest Labs and Dropcam within the span of six months, it seemed inevitable that a big, contentious conversation about privacy and boundaries would follow. Both Nest and Dropcam, after all, make internet-connected devices that collect reams and reams of data about the most private of spaces — our homes — and Google is, well, Google, a multi-billion-dollar corporation built on the principle that no byte or pixel is too unimportant to collect, store, and monetize.

So it’s the opposite of shocking that Google is now opening up Nest products to third-party developers, or that Google itself will be among the first companies able to gather data from Nest thermostats and smoke detectors in users’ homes. And it’s not even that worrisome, frankly. We’ve already given Google every morsel of data about us  — what where we go, what we do online, whom we email, what we buy. Why draw the line at the physical walls of our homes?

I know, I know. I’m supposed to sound the alarm on the potentially disastrous privacy implications of the Google-Nest foray into home surveillance. Then, with a sigh, I’m supposed to note that Americans historically place a much bigger value on convenience than security, while reminding you that privacy concerns didn’t stop people from using fitness wearables, mapping software, Facebook ads, the Kindle Fire, or browser tracking, and lamenting that, short of building robots that come to our houses and strangle us in our sleep, there’s nothing much Google could do in the privacy department that would bother more than a few worrywarts.

Actually, in the case of internet-connected devices, it might be good to have Google taking the lead. After all, the biggest security worry associated with the so-called “Internet of Things” isn’t that the companies making these devices will misuse the data they’re authorized to gather from us. It’s that outside hackers will be able to exploit security holes and take control of the devices, as they’ve already done with internet-connected baby monitors. And whether or not you believe Nest’s claims that it’s “not becoming part of the greater Google machine,” the fact remains that Google has far more cryptographic muscle than most companies, and it’s been storing our data mostly securely for years. All else being equal, you want Google taking over your home appliances rather than some young, untested upstart.

The main concern, from where I sit, isn’t that the rise of connected devices will make us all feel unsafe in our homes. (On the contrary — I think one of the first non-gimmicky uses of these systems will be for home security.) It’s that living in a Google-connected home will feel extremely weird.

Several months ago, I tested SmartThings, a home automation system that is very similar to the one Nest Labs is building. I set up nearly a dozen sensors around my home, connected them through the SmartThings app, and set up various process chains so that, for example, the lights went on automatically whenever I came in to a room and turned off when I left. SmartThings is still a new platform, and the number of household appliances and tasks it can automate is still relatively small. (You can’t have a SmartThing sensor fold your laundry or cook you a meal.) Still, the sensation of having things happen around me, independently of my actions, in my house, produced a feeling of mild unease. 

This feeling wasn’t threatening, exactly, in part because these home automation systems are still fairly primitive. At no time during my week-long SmartThings test did I feel like I had lost control of my surroundings. But as they get better, these technologies are going to make our homes feel more and more alien. Temperatures will change based on our levels of alertness. Lights will dim and brighten according to our moods. Services will integrate with each other so that, for example, if you’ve recently searched Google for cookie recipes, your oven will begin preheating, just in case you feel like baking.

Perhaps the “uncanny valley” theory, which describes the discomfort we get when robots act almost, but not exactly, like humans, also applies to home automation. We don’t mind basic home automation tasks, like thermostat adjustment or smoke detection. And we won’t mind it much when our homes seamlessly adjust to our needs. But there will be a large, unsettling period in the middle, when just enough is happening around us to creep us out.

If the uncanny valley does exist, Google is the company best suited to take us across it. It has some of the best machine-learning specialists in the world, and if Nest takes off, it will almost certainly start loading up other home appliances with increasingly sophisticated connectivity, all of which will be easily integrated with Google’s existing services. Given the number of appliance companies that are currently playing along with the automation trend, it’s almost inevitable that, within a decade or two, Google — or whoever ends up winning the home automation wars — will have near-total control of the things in our houses. Our homes will speak to us. Our devices will go from being part-time companions to full-time roommates.

I’m looking forward to seeing what Google has in store for home automation at its I/O conference today. I just hope the company realizes how high the stakes are for getting it right. People’s homes aren’t like their cars or offices. They’re sanctuaries, fortresses, places where life’s valuables are stored and tended.

Unlike most disputes between privacy and convenience, the home automation debate is tipped in privacy’s favor — the emotional investment we have in keeping our homes safe and comfortable far outweighs the benefits we might get from an automated refrigerator or a set of presence-sensing light bulbs. And if Google’s Nest, or any other company, wants to move in with us, it will have to be very, very careful not to make us feel like we’re strangers in our own homes. This is one digital conversion the tech industry can’t afford to screw up.