In the past few weeks both Facebook and Google have released shiny new video portals aimed at making the interface between their platforms and your brain even more seamless. The awkwardly named Google Nest Hub Max (which probably could use a "Pro" tossed in there, too) and the rather on-the-nose Facebook Portal, as well as the Amazon Echo Show, want to be your constant countertop companion as you cook, chat, shop, watch videos, and do whatever else human beings do inside their human homes.
Where they will also--there's no gentle way to say this-- keep tabs on you. As my colleague Jason Aten pointed out, the Google Nest Hub Max (maybe they can add "2.0" or "X-Treme," while they're at it) has an always-on camera (!) that can "detect and analyze faces and determine whom it's interacting with."
Given the company's spotty history with facial recognition, any rational person would have serious concerns about putting a device like this in their home. As Aten joked, "Google wanting to put a camera in my house that's always on? What could possibly go wrong?"
Similarly, reviews of the Portal note that it tracks the length and frequency of chats (it comes loaded with Facebook's WhatsApp and Messenger) but allows you to cover its lens--an almost too-literal privacy fig leaf from a company that's become synonymous with breaches in the past few years. As for the Amazon Echo Show, well, that name will prove a gift to headline writers if and when it's revealed to be as nosy as its progenitor, Alexa. ("Show and Tell"; "Peep Show"; "Horror Show"; I could go on.)
Serious question: Who besides the most tech-besotted among us would invite Google, Facebook, or Amazon deeper into their lives in 2019?
Each of these companies has been criticized, and in some cases fined, for trading on users' privacy, tracking us, slicing people up into ever smaller (and potentially biased) demographic niches for ad-targeting, sharing our info with law enforcement, and generally making users feel spied upon constantly. Now, if you shell out a couple hundred bucks, they will enter your home in ways that all the smart speakers and TVs, internet-enabled doorbells and thermostats, and whatever other appliances that require constant balancing of ease and eavesdropping could only aspire to.
This is not to argue there's no reason to buy or use one of these things. You'll decide that for yourself. But when you do: consider that their less-touted purpose is to further reset the boundaries on privacy.
Eight years ago, iPhone users were shocked to discover their phones were tracking them everywhere. This fact made headlines worldwide, but eventually people just came to accept it. Now a massive report from The New York Times about apps like WeatherBug
The same thing happened when Amazon released its first Alexa-enabled Echo devices in 2014, which totally freaked people out--until it didn't. This summer, when it was revealed that Amazon contractors had listened to Alexa requests and other audio, the reaction was muted (sorry), to say the least. In March, it was reported that over a quarter of U.S. adults own smartspeakers: That's a lot of people letting the tech giants sit in on their private chats.
So what's going to happen when it's revealed that Google Nest Hub Max or Facebook Portal accidentally broadcast a family's private moments to the world. Or that a directory of chat logs was accessible to all employees who work for one of these tech giants?
First, expect a raft of op-eds by skeptics like me, followed by some "your privacy matters to us" theater by the responsible company. Then a software update with new privacy settings that casual users will have difficulty figuring out, price reductions to attract new users, followed by another device update, and then a new version to be met with mostly positive reviews released just in time for the holidays.
Will the designers and engineers of that next-gen device learn anything from such a breach? You bet they will. They'll learn that the line has moved. And so will the device. This one will sit on your nightstand, right next to your phone. Or into the bathroom, to better work with your smart mirror. It'll be so convenient and so useful, you won't even think about the awesome power of Google, Facebook, Amazon, or Apple sharing the bathroom with you and your family.
Does that creep you out? Don't worry: You're not alone.
And you'll never have to be, ever again.