Google Nest Facial Recognition Raises Privacy Issues–and Video Calling Standards

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Facial recognition in home hub devices

The digital revolution has killed off passive consumerism. That’s both an empowering and confronting turn of events. As a positive, it has made digital services and products more responsive to consumer demands, resulting in a greater emphasis on the customer experience. The negative side of things is that it has turned every consumer into a target, a crumb-laden potential sale leaving a digital trail for advertisers to follow with every choice they make…conscious or unconscious.

Into this dynamic comes the Google Nest facial recognition-powered smart hub. Google’s answer to Amazon’s market-leading Echo home hub is a two-way visual communication platform. It uses facial recognition to personalize the user experience and remember or recommend music, video, and messaging offerings based on previously gathered information.

As an example of the kind of responsive AI we’ll soon be seeing in our digital communications platforms, notably video conferencing, it is an undoubted positive. As an example of how much of our personal information is coming under the scrutiny of AI-powered products, it is a potentially scary negative.

Google Nest Facial Recognition and Video Calling

The Google Nest Hub Max, to roll out the full title, was unveiled at the recent I/O developer conference in Mountain View, California. The $229 home hub powered by Google Assistant upgrades the tech giant’s previous smart home device by increasing the size of the video conferencing-enabled screen from seven to ten inches and adding a wide-angle 127-degree camera.

The Nest also supports hands-free video calls through iOS and Android smartphones.

The device is designed to personalize the hub experience by using facial recognition to identify individual users within the home. Using Google’s own “Face Match” technology, every registered human (up to six per household) who comes within view of the Nest’s camera gets a personal greeting and a personalized interface. The interface provides programmed updates such as calendar details, weather reports, and traffic commute information and offers up suggestions for music, videos, and products based on observed data–all spoken by Google Assistant because text is too 20th century.

The Nest also supports hands-free video calls through iOS and Android smartphones and, of course, through other Nests. The function is still in its infancy, so it’s likely that it will soon be possible to make calls to desktop-dominant video calling platforms as well.

The pros and cons of the device can best be summed up through the experience of the Nest’s two primary video calling hub rivals: the Amazon Echo Show and the Facebook Portal.

The Amazon-Like Upside

Amazon’s Echo Show was the first commercially successful attempt to move video conferencing from computer and smartphone screens and out into the common areas of the home–we’ve argued it could become the 21st-century version of the formerly ubiquitous landline phone.

The Nest can act as a security camera, sending alerts to users’ smartphones whenever an unfamiliar–or familiar–face enters its field of view.

The Google Nest advances that potential by introducing its facial recognition technology, which Google acquired when it bought Nest and its Internet of Things-connected devices for $3.2 billion in 2014. The advanced camera in the Nest does more than just recognize faces. It can track video callers as they move around and use auto-framing to keep them in the camera’s view. And in a nod to its pre-Google IoT heritage, the Nest can act as a security camera, sending alerts to users’ smartphones whenever an unfamiliar–or familiar–face enters its field of view.

As with the Echo Show, the Nest is the user-friendly face of the next generation of digital home communications. While most of the video conferencing industry’s efforts have concentrated on business solutions or social media add-ons, the Echo and Nest are powerful devices for personal use. The movement of AI-powered, face-searching video calling into our personal spaces does, however, bring with it a potential downside.

The Facebook-Like Downside

When Facebook released its own version of a smart home hub late last year, it was immediately met with concern that Facebook’s facial recognition software would compromise its users’ privacy. Such is the damage the social media pioneer has suffered at the hands of a series of privacy indiscretions that the innovation of its Facebook Portal device was received with extreme skepticism.

The Facebook product itself is as strong as either of its two rivals. But it is a Facebook device, and even though the company reassured consumers that any visual data gathered would be stored on-device and not sent to the Facebook cloud, its release was tainted by distrust before it even got rolling. This despite apps like Snapchat pursuing more aggressive uses of facial recognition technology.

Advances like the Google Nest are making our lives easier, but they come at a cost.

Google is asking users to make the same leap of trust with its product as they have with Facebook and its product, although Google has a much healthier public reputation. Its Nest requires users to “opt-in” to using the facial recognition tech, and, as with the Portal, information will be stored locally. The real security test comes when Nest users are asked to merge their Google and home security histories within the same device–Nest has operated separately from Google since the buyout. There’s potentially years and years of personal data stored on both systems.

When you agree to Google Nest’s facial recognition and other AI capabilities, you are getting the most informed smart device in your life. While that’s great for optimizing search and fetch tasks, and will no doubt improve the functionality of video calls, every action will, either now or in the future, inform and empower Google, the world’s largest advertising agency (Google has said that it is not currently using Nest data for advertising).

Advances like the Google Nest are making our lives easier, but they come at a cost. We’re no longer passive agents consuming incoming information. Instead, we’re trading away pieces of our privacy for the convenience of high technology. For many people, it’s worth it, merely an extension of the way we already allow our phones to know our location in exchange for the location of the nearest coffee shop or drugstore. Google–as well as companies like Facebook and Amazon–are clearly betting that the majority of us fall into this camp.

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