Google Requests Nest Account Holders Switch to Google Accounts, May Use Data in Ad Personalization, and is Shutting Down the Works with Nest Program in August
Google announced last week at its I/O developer conference that it was consolidating its Google Home product line under the Nest brand. This follows the February 2018 announcement that Nest would no longer be a completely independent division, but instead be folded into Google’s teams under Hardware SVP Rick Osterloh. A July 2018 update to that same post indicated that Rishi Chandra would take over the combined Google Home and Nest product portfolio. Nine months later and that integration appears to be a full Google organizational takeover alongside a Nest brand takeover, but as a Google sub-brand.
Ron Amadeo points out in Ars Technica that the Google store has not updated all of its product naming but the Google Store help pages for Device Availability already include several renamed products. For example, Google Nest Hub Max is alongside Google Nest Hub (formerly known as Google Home Hub). These are examples of dropping the “Home” branding. In addition, the site now lists Google Nest Hello, Google Nest Learning Thermostat, Google Nest Temperature Sensor and so on. These products did not have “Google” in their product names a week ago. Interestingly, the rebranding has been likened to the smartphone product portfolio being named Pixel, but none of those products have “Google” in front of “Pixel.”
A Google Account and Assistant Ecosystem
A new webpage on Nest.com includes the friendly greeting: “What’s happening at Nest? Learn about Google Nest, account changes, Works with Nest, and more.” It starts by saying the company has brought together all Google Home and Nest products under the Nest brand. It then goes on to list two key changes that will take place in addition to the new branding:
- One Google account to manage Nest and Google Home devices
- One third-party device ecosystem which is Works with Google Assistant while Works will Nest will be discontinued on August 31, 2019
To be clear, the language says “Nest accounts will be invited to migrate to Google Accounts.” Users will, for now, be permitted to maintain their Nest account. However, it also states that “as Nest offers new connected devices and services in the future, many of those will only be available to our users with Google Accounts.” They also suggest that Google Accounts will benefit from “enhanced security” and “seamless user experiences” and that they “strongly recommend” migration. In other words, if you like your Nest account, you can keep your Nest account, but that may not be a great idea or even guaranteed long-term.
The FAQs around the discontinuation of Works with Nest also indicate that some third-party device integrations will go away entirely. For example,
“Works with Nest allows many third-party partners direct access and control of your Nest devices (with your permission)…Third parties will no longer be able to ask for permission to directly access or control your Next devices, thus keeping your data more private.”
This functionality may, in theory, be replaced by integration with Google Assistant, but controls will be circumscribed by what Assistant allows. The obvious target of such a move might logically be Amazon Alexa. However, a note on the Nest support page for Amazon Alexa says, “There is no change to your device functionality with Alexa. We are working with Amazon to migrate the Nest skill on Amazon Alexa to ensure a smooth transition for Nest customers prior to winding down the Works with Nest program in August.” This means Google may make some exceptions and potentially expose some lower level controls through Google Assistant that are available today in Works with Nest.
However, The Verge has compiled a handy list of products that are likely to no longer work as expected with Nest after August 2019. Some of these include Logitech Harmony, Philips Hue, Lutron, August Home, SimpliSafe, Wemo, and even IFTTT. Each of these companies already has experience with Google Assistant integration so it may not be Armageddon for smart home pioneers, but this all rests on what type of access is provided to third-parties.
Couched in Security but Delivering Tighter Control and Data for Ad Personalization
The move is couched in the objective of better security which may or may not be evident to consumers in terms of actual benefits. However, Google will secure tighter control over the data flows to and from these devices and benefit from the efficiency of having fewer platforms and partner programs to support. Google also says in the FAQs that use of the new Google Account may be used to “personalize” your Nest experience. It says this data will only be used when interacting with other Google services such as Google Assistant, but it is clear the data is being collected.
By far the longest FAQ entry answers the question: “How will Google use my Nest account data if I migrate to a Google Account?” It includes this curiously worded entry:
When you are not interacting with Google services like the Assistant, your Nest device usage data (for example, when you manually adjust your thermostat’s temperature settings) will not be used for ad personalization. Google will use this data for other purposes…such as providing your Google services and experiences related to the connected home, improving and personalizing them and creating new ones, for maintaining safety and security, and for keeping you informed of relevant Google products, services, and updates. This data will not be available for you to review and delete in My Activity, and turning off your Google activity controls will not stop the collection or retention of this data for these more limited purposes, since these purposes relate to your core connected home devices and services experience. The data is deleted when you delete your account.”
There is a lot of information in this paragraph which is one of 12 in the FAQ answering this single question. First, it says that if you manually control your Nest device—which doesn’t seem like the core use case for such a device—the data related to your activities will not be used for ad personalization. It is fair to say that if you do use a Google service which includes Assistant and presumably a mobile app, then the data can or will be used for ad serving. Second, even if you do interact with the device manually, then the data cannot be viewed and it can only be deleted if you delete your account.
Nest’s current Privacy Statement does not mention ad personalization as a permitted use. There are clauses for marketing Nest products and services based on customer use, but no mention of sharing data beyond those uses or for third-party integrations that are expressly given permission by the user. In addition, Nest enables users to view their data and delete it, which appears to no longer be the case after transitioning to the Google Account.
How Will Consumers React?
Ad personalization isn’t necessarily bad, but it does raise concern among consumers. While there are many studies suggesting consumers like ad personalization, it depends on how you ask the question. eMarketer reported recently on an RSA Security survey that found just 17% of consumers in the U.S., France, Germany, and the U.K. thought it was ethical to track online activity to tailor advertisements.
The rebranding may ruffle a few feathers of Nest superfans, but will largely go unnoticed since Nest will remain in the core branding. Shifting users to a Google Account will no doubt bring new features, but the ad personalization loophole based on behavior in the home may not be as readily accepted. In general, we have consistently seen consumers express concerns and then ignore those concerns in adopting convenience over privacy. This is likely how the Nest integration into core Google is likely to play out as well. However, it is worth noting that rebranding is only part of the change that went along with Google’s announcement last week.