In one of the worst pieces of news this week, Google is assimilating Nest Labs, which makes state of the art thermostats and smoke detectors. Prior to this news, I was preparing to retrofit my house with Nest products, which I have decided not to do. The apparent reason for this acquisition is that it gives Google more of a foothold in the smart house world, and it reflects a dramatic change from the idea that a smart house is a free standing unit to the notion that a smart house is somehow integrated into the broader grid. Over the past few decades, this has been the stuff of science fiction–that homes with web integrated technology allows the water company to better understand communal usage by knowing if you are home, or allowing electric plants to make the same determination. And while that is bad enough, do you really need Google knowing what you are using electric power for? They insist that Nest owners won’t be seeing pop up adds on the thermostats, and that Nest will continue to operate independently, but inherent in that promise are the words “trust us,” which is the same coinage used by Target Stores.
But the broader point I want to raise isn’t one of corporate parentage. I don’t have a problem with that. In fact, I expected that sooner or later Nest would be acquired by a major thermostat manufacturer. But there is something a little bit wrong about the company being acquired by Google, which seems to be quickly assembling both a horizontally and vertically integrated information monopoly. This acquisition not only contains information, which is Google’s business, but it also spills over into public utility. Several years ago, I objected to the installation of transponder-based water and electric meters, which were mandated by the town in which I live. At a trial a number of years ago, we proved that these transponder signals can be intercepted and broken down to provide information not only about usage, but also about the actual products you use. this information could report that your refrigerator isn’t working quite correctly, and you could receive a sales pitch for a new refrigerator. data mining from the public street. You can stop this by the purchase of a scrambler, but interception is still hyper technical. Now, Google wants your information to be open source. And I can see the day coming when public utilities will demand the right to dictate your thermostat in the same way it dictates how your meter is read.
For all the wailing about Big Business being Exxon/Mobil, the real evil force lurking in our society is Google, and other tech companies, who are not operating in an environment in which privacy and security are correctly maintained. And the connection between these tech companies, and the government, has been recently exposed by Eric Snowden’s disclosures. Your private information is not private from the FISA court, and Google wants more of your household smart house information on line and available to it. Which is why you won’t see the Justice Department scrutinizing Google the way it went after ATT and Microsoft. But it should. Because information is power. Control of information is power. And this behavior is not only anti-competitive, but also threatening the very business environment in which we live. In the face of such monopolies and lack of consumer choice, we are not just surrendering our right to have pretty colored princess phones, but also our right to any privacy in our homes at all. When Google is getting into acquiring utility technology for on line availability, it is all of us who are being assimilated.