Google's move into home automation means even less privacy

Plans by subsidiary Nest to share info with the search giant is the tip of the iceberg

Plans by smart thermostat maker Nest Labs to soon start sharing some customer data with corporate parent Google means the search engine giant will be fending off privacy concerns as it expands into the home automation market.

On Monday, Nest unveiled a program to allow third parties to integrate their devices and appliances with the company's smart thermostats and smoke detectors.

The goal is to help users create a fully connected home in which a multitude of devices and appliances can communicate securely with each other to manage energy consumption and enhance safety and convenience.

For instance, a fitness band that's integrated with Nest could alert a home thermostat when the person is awake to turn the heat up or down. Or a car that can interact with the Nest platform would alert the thermostat when the driver gets home or is away and set the temperature to an appropriate level or turn lights on or off.

Several companies have already announced plans to participate in the Nest developer program, including Mercedes Benz, Whirlpool, fitness band maker Jawbone, Logitech and Chamberlain. In fact, more than 5,000 developers have expressed interest in participating in the developer program, according to Nest.

One of them is Google. Soon, users will be able to use apps like Google Now to set their Nest thermostats or to let the technology know when they are at home or away.

"Just speak a command, 'OK Google. Set Nest to 75 degrees,' and your Nest Thermostat will do as you say," Nest said in a statement announcing the developer program. "With Google Now, you can be on your way home, and your thermostat will start heating or cooling before you get there."

To make all of this happen, Nest will have to share at least some customer information with the partners it's working with under the developer program. For example, by linking Google Now to Nest, Google will have information on when and whether a Nest user is at home or not, Nest co-founder Matt Rogers said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

What's not fully clear is exactly how much information Nest will need to share with partners. Nest itself appears to be cognizant of the privacy concerns surrounding its purchase by Google earlier this year for $3.2 billion.

Nest has insisted that any information it shares will be limited and will only happen after the user has explicitly agreed. Each company that partners with Nest will have to let users know exactly what information they are requesting and why, so users have a clear idea of what is going on.

Nest will also limit the amount of data held by developers, ensure that no personally identifiable information is shared and give users the ability to opt-out at any time. And it's been very careful to position Google as just another partner in its developer ecosystem with no special privileges to its customer data.

Read more about privacy in Computerworld's Privacy Topic Center.

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