Big Brother Is Watching You: Its Name Is Google

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Unless you live under a rock, you've heard that Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL  ) is buying connected device maker Nest for $3.2 billion. However, what you might not know is how Google could use Nest's products in the future to track your every move. The search giant, after all, is known for its proficiency in collecting and mining user data. And what better way of doing this than through in-home devices such as Nest's smart thermostat or smoke detector?

Acquiring Nest gives Google an entry into the burgeoning "Internet of Things" -- a market that's expected to be worth $14.4 trillion over the next decade, according to Cisco. If you're not yet familiar with the term, it refers to the growing network of machines, appliances, and everyday objects, which are being connected and controlled through the Web today.

Tracking how you live
Nest's devices take home automation to the next level by actually monitoring a users routines. The company's smart thermostat, for example, uses auto-away technology to detect when you leave the house. It then automatically adjusts the temperature to avoid heating or cooling an empty home. While this seems useful, some people have concerns over the privacy implications of such products -- particularly now that Google will have access to the information stored by Nest products.

Nest's founder, Matt Rogers, was quick to counter this argument by pointing out that the company's privacy policy "limits the use of customer information to providing and improving Nest's products and services." Even so, privacy advocates need to understand that Google already has access vast amounts of personal data by way of its Android operating system.

In fact, using location services Google knows the precise position of every Android-user's WiFi enabled device. That's especially important, considering ABI Research estimates that a whopping 798 million people use Android-based mobile devices today. Of course, the same goes for Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL  ) , which currently counts around 294 million people as iOS users today, according to similar research. While Google and Apple say they don't share such data with outside companies, a new industry is emerging today with the sole purpose of capitalizing on such information.

Big brother's nosey siblings
Meet Turnstyle Solutions, a consumer analytics company that uses location based services and WiFi to track your every move. A recent story in the Wall Street Journal documents how this company can use strategically placed sensors to track your smartphone's WiFi signal. Turnstyle can then use this information to create detailed profile's on people's habits, which it in turn sells to nearby retailers and businesses. For consumers, this technology can become intrusive. However, for retail stores, location data provides valuable insight into consumers' shopping habits. Even Apple is jumping on the bandwagon these days.

The Mac maker launched its iBeacon short-range positioning tech at 254 of its U.S. stores in December. Using Bluetooth low-energy, or BLE, Apple's iBeacon is able to send notifications to customers' iPhones as they shop in an Apple store. For example, Apple can push messages to your phone about specific product offerings or let you know where to go to pick up items you ordered online.

Importantly, iBeacon also works with Android devices. This could make it even easier for retailers of all sizes to leverage Google's massive Android user base. As more items become linked to Google and Apple devices, these companies are able to collect an ever-increasing amount of data on the way people use such objects. Ultimately, Google wants to own the future, and with strategic acquisitions like Nest and Android's growing share of the mobile market, it just might.

How Google will use the information it collects on us only the future will tell. Of course, you can always turn off your Wi-Fi, if you'd prefer that Google or a company like Turnstyle not track your movements. Still, in today's hyper connected world that's often easier said than done.

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Read/Post Comments (4) | Recommend This Article (3)

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  • Report this Comment On January 21, 2014, at 6:20 PM, JaanS wrote:


    Very good article, and I agree completely with your premise.

    A note on details. Re "The Mac maker launched its iBeacon short-range positioning tech at 254 of its U.S. stores... Apple can push messages to your phone..."

    While this is true, it is only true if you have installed and enabled the Apple Store app. This is true of most iBeacon technology, you must first have an app installed that will talk to the iBeacon.

    Once you do, the in-store application then knows your identity (at least as much as you have shared with the app). What it does with that info is then an open question - whatever the retailer has decided to do.

    Perhaps what we need is a consumer standard that will rate each iBeacon service application on its privacy policies.

  • Report this Comment On January 21, 2014, at 6:28 PM, JaanS wrote:


    This is the tricky part here. Because apps do not necessarily have any of your personal info. Access to that is blocked by both iOS and Android - until you give permission to the individual app.

    But since most retail apps will thrive precisely knowing your name as a customer, there is a potential for a lot greater loss of privacy.

    That is, if some retailer - say "Beers r Us" - were to pass data to some outside network, and this network received data from other retailers, then the network would essentially know where you are, and who you are with virtually all the time.

    I am not sure if this is what people want or not.

  • Report this Comment On January 22, 2014, at 10:44 AM, TMFSocialME wrote:

    Hi Malcolm,

    Thanks for your comments. In the future, I suspect privacy will be the greatest luxury.

  • Report this Comment On January 29, 2014, at 10:56 AM, JeffGeorge wrote:

    Google is becoming SkyNet and this should not be news or shocking to anyone. If you own an Android smartphone and you enable history in your web browser and location, you give Google everything they need to keep a close eye on your browsing habits as well as your daily routine. I guess if you allow Google to be "Big Brother" they will be. As soon as Google sells out to the FEDS, everyone's privacy will be bought and paid for. The NSA already has a hard on for Google's user profile tracking technology. It's only a matter of time before they sell out to the FEDS. The CIA has been involved in the communications industry since the 1950's. Soon, the FEDS will either purchase a big chuck of Google or the Supreme Court will rule that they have to give user information over to the NSA. The only thing you can really do is use anonymous VPN's or proxies and share as little personal info on the web as possible.

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Tamara Rutter

I've been an analytical writer for The Motley Fool since 2011. I cover the sectors of Consumer Goods, Technology, and Industrials. Connect with me on Twitter using the handle, @TamaraRutter -- I'd love to hear from you!

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