The keynote speech at this year’s Google I/O took place under clear blue California skies. No clouds that day, but one circling airplane carrying a banner message. “Google control is not privacy” — a compelling statement, particularly juxtaposed with the keynote’s subject matter.
Describing Google’s even-handed perspective on the usefulness of data versus the sanctity of privacy, Google CEO Sundar Pichai plainly laid out Google’s non-interest in harvesting excess data (most doesn’t leave your device). He also made the case that technology needs to learn about you to be useful, and advertising needs to learn about you in order to guarantee the commercial success that keeps Google free. Pichai made the same cogent argument in an op-ed for the New York Times.
Keynotes are one thing. What about the actual technology? Do emerging devices walk the fine line between useful and private?
Google’s commital to user privacy came through most clearly with the presentation of Google’s new smart home hub’s kill switch. Rather than fumbling through software settings, or just trusting your devices aren’t listening to you when they shouldn’t be, the hub’s physical switch allows you to simply turn the thing off.
But, as Fast Company and others have pointed out, the kill switch also renders the device unusable. Want to make a call, surf the web, adjust the thermostat? Every output needs an input. A smart gadget of any ilk needs data to function.
Therein lies the conundrum of data sharing: You don’t want to release your personal info, but the technology we’ve come to expect relies on it. If you don’t tell Google Maps where you are, it won’t be able to say where you’re headed. We don’t want to give them our data, but we have to if we want to keep feeling delighted with the services technology renders. It’s a weird variation of “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”
Twitter sleuths linked the airborne message — which read in full “Google control is not privacy #savelocalnews” — to World Press Freedom Day, but its first half raises an important, independent point: If we rely on the technology that makes our lives automated, fast, and helpful, we rely on the handful of powerful companies that provide the best tech.
Google recently announced that it will merge the smart home home brand Nest into its lineup of home products, but will be ditching the “Works with Nest” program that allowed for third party integration. The move, touted as a safety measure, also ensures your entire smart home system will be supplied by Google.
While the fear of what companies do with our data is nebulous, the fact that humans value privacy is evident in the fences that separate our properties, the curtains that cover our windows. Both fences and curtains, of course, shield our homes. It only makes sense that the smart home is the battleground for data.
Smart home tech is with us, watching us, when we’re in the private sphere. Our phones likely process more data, but we use those in the public sphere. It’s incumbent on Google, who may be poised to dominate the smart home space, to make people feel comfortable opening up their homes to data. Giving people a way of turning that flow of data off is the first step. But giving us the power to turn it off just makes a snarky point every time we turn it back on. Ultimately, won’t we hand over whatever our devices need in order to function?
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