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Interview: Nest’s head of product says Google is completely rethinking privacy



As technology evolves from the smartphones in our pockets into a realm of scattered devices that listen, watch and interact with us, Google expects privacy to go through a big change.

For one thing, says Google hardware executive Rishi Chandra, a world of ubiquitous smart devices located in homes, offices and streets means a different relationship between a user and a product.

“We’re trying to clarify, whether you’re the owner or a friend or a guest — what our products do from a privacy standpoint. How do they work? Why do we have sensors in them? What do the sensors do?” Chandra said in an interview with Business Insider. “It’s not like you can sign a TOS (Terms Of Service) when you enter someone’s house. So we have to be very upfront about how our products work.”

Chandra is the VP of Product at Nest, Google’s line of home appliances such as smart thermostats, video cameras and the Nest Hub Max that was unveiled at the Google I/O developers conference this week. His products exist in the world of “ambient computing” — a term coined by tech journalist Walt Mossberg to describe the growing array of technology that exists outside our personal devices.

Read more: Google’s new $229 ‘smart hub’ device has a built-in Nest camera that can recognize your face

With ambient computing, much of the decision making power that users have today on their computers or smartphones will be stripped, Chandra says. For instance, when someone walks into a friend’s home who has a smart speaker, that person doesn’t have control over what information is collected from the conversation — the power lies with the company making the speaker.

“Because it’s a communal experience, the bar is very different,” Chandra said. “Now all of a sudden, the commitment to privacy isn’t just to me, but to anybody that actually walks into my house.”

Chandra told us that Google recognized this paradigm shift and the problems it could introduce. In response, the company released a set of privacy commitments on Tuesday for its smart home devices and services that it says it will follow moving forward, starting with the Nest Hub Max.

Consistency will be key

To gain users’ trust in a world of ambient computing, Chandra said consistency in product design will be key.

With the Nest Hub Max, for example, anytime the camera is recording, a green status light will shine. That same green light should illuminate on all Nest products when the camera is on so users can make the association, according to Chandra.

But today, that’s not the case.

On current Nest cam products, users can turn the status light off — even if it’s recording — so that the camera becomes less noticeable. In the future, those kinds of product tweaks will not be allowed.

Nest Hub Max

“Part of this is making us rethink decisions we’ve made in the past,” Chandra said. “[Moving forward] we’re not going to allow the owner dictate how our products work or how people understand how our products work.”

Gaining consumer trust will be essential for Google’s efforts to spread its lineup of smart home devices, but could be an uphill battle given the company’s recent track record. In February, Business Insider was the first to report that Google admitted to making an “error” in not disclosing an embedded microphone in its home security and alarm system, Nest Secure.

“It was a strong reminder that if we screw up, it erodes trust,” Chandra said of the incident. “It forced us to double down on how we are going to institute these [privacy] commitments.”

‘It’s one team now’

Beyond its new commitment to privacy, the Nest Hub Max also signifies a meaningful internal development for Google’s home hardware division. The company said on Tuesday that moving forward, all of its new and updated products will be branded with the “Nest” name.

The cohesion of brands is a long time coming for Google, which acquired Nest for $3.2 billion in 2014. When Google reorganized into Alphabet in 2015, Nest became a standalone company and wasn’t folded back into Google until 2017.

Google’s head of hardware, Rick Osterloh

“It’s one team now. One roadmap across the entire organization,” Chandra told us. “A lot of it was breaking the silos — that’s the work we’ve been doing over the past year.”

To start, the Google Home Hub (the original hub product without a camera) will change its name to “Nest Home Hub.” In the future, when hardware products like Google Wifi come out with new versions, their names will change as well.

“I’m super excited about the roadmap that we have now,” Chandra said. “But it took us some time to get there because we are changing the vision of where we want to go.”

Don’t call it a ‘smart home’

That change of vision, Chandra said, comes from the team’s decision to focus its product efforts to build a “helpful home,” not simply, a “smart home.”

To Chandra and his team, that means making products that are simple — anyone from five to ninety-five years old should be able to understand how to use their products. It also means, that when Nest products are used in conjunction with one another, they should deliver a better experience. “Better together” is the feel-good phrase Chandra likes to use.

The mantra of building a more helpful Google was echoed on stage by Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai during his keynote speech at I/O on Tuesday, and seems to be how the company hopes to evolve its product offering across the board.

“In the end, our mission [at Google] is about help,” Chandra said. “If we focus on the tech, I think, if we follow that path, we’ll fail as an industry. If we focus on help and the benefits we give to our users, then I think we have opportunity and upside.”

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