Should you ever tell someone that you’ve stashed a smart speaker, camera, or display in your home somewhere? If the person lives with you, absolutely. If you’re having some friends over, though, is this overkill? Do you have a responsibility to let people know, or are you making a mountain out of a (smart) molehill?
Having just acquired a Google Nest Hub Max, I have my own thoughts on this. But first let’s hear from Google’s own Rick Osterloh—senior vice president of devices and services, and the guy who who basically ran last week’s Made by Google event, if you recall.
In a recent interview, Osterloh had a somewhat surprising admission about device transparency. Surprising not because he was wrong, but because you might not expect the guy sitting on a mountain of hardware—at Google, no less—to share such a concern in a public form. As he told the BBC:
“It’s quite important for all these technologies to think about all users… we have to consider all stakeholders that might be in proximity. Does the owner of a home need to disclose to a guest? I would and do when someone enters into my home, and it’s probably something that the products themselves should try to indicate.”
I would absolutely love to hear your thoughts on this in the comments. To get the conversation started, here’s what I’ve been thinking based on my own life experience of using a variety of connected devices—speakers, cameras, whatever—in the house I share with my roommates.
Generally speaking, I think it’s a bit overkill to announce to guests that you own or use a smart speaker. These devices don’t listen to you unless you utter whatever specific wake word it is you use. After that, recordings can happen, sure, but I think most people at a social gathering or a party aren’t going to spill their innermost secrets just because someone (or someone on the TV) accidentally said “Alexa” or “Hey Google.”
If anything, I’d be more afraid that your friends or party guests use your smart speaker to fuck around with you than accidentally reveal their darkest thoughts, but that’s just me. Sure, I suppose a truly evil geek (or company) could dial into their smart speakers in advance from another room and record everything that’s said around these devices—assuming you’ve hidden the smart speaker or people don’t know what to look for when the speaker indicates it is recording something. They could also drop a pinhole camera into the bathroom or something, too; at some point, you’re going to have to rely on your own instincts (and a person’s trustworthiness), and that’s probably a lot more significant than having them announce that, yes, there’s an Amazon Echo in their living room.
That all said, I do think you should have a basic idea of what devices look like when they’re recording—green, for example, if someone has dialed into an Amazon Echo—and to help you out with that, I do think someone should let you know if they have an always-on device like a Nest Cam or, in my case, a Google Nest Hub Max. People might not realize that your pretty smart display’s tiny green light means that the camera is on and recording everything that happens in front of it. That it’s not a “this device is powered on” light.
At least, that was my situation when I recently set up a Google Nest Hub Max. And this isn’t meant to criticize Google; the device does exactly what it’s meant to, and my breezing through the setup process without much thought meant that my surprise was my fault. When I downloaded the associated Nest app and pulled it up to see just what my device’s camera could do, I realize it had been recording, well, everything—from me sitting at my desk working, to me changing clothes for the day, to all the various times during the night when my desktop monitor accidentally flicked on and likely woke me up (which explains why I’ve been sleeping poorly lately).
Anyway, I should have known better, but that’s my fault for setting up my device without really reading the fine print of what I was doing. What can I say; I was in a rush. However, I also would probably not have thought about this recording aspect at all were I visiting a friend’s house and admiring the smart display in their kitchen, and I would absolutely know I would have a normal conversation around it without realizing that its owner could pull up the footage later to see what I was talking about—if they were that weird about surveillance.
So I’m with Osterloh on this one. If you have an always-on recording device in your home, you’re a jerk if you don’t let people know where it is and what it does. (And this is something you should remind people about regularly, as I doubt most are making a mental list in their heads of which friends have what devices and where.) If you’re simply sporting a smart speaker, I think announcing its presence is less of a deal—overkill, really. But if a camera is recording me at any point, and that’s something you can view later, I think it’s the friendly thing to do to let me know before I start gossiping…or worse.