Hidden microphones in your thermostat, secret recordings, and three other Google privacy breaches

November 1, 2019

 We’ve got good news and bad news.  The bad news first:  Waterfront Toronto has chosen to let the evaluation of the smart city project with Google’s sister company, Sidewalk Labs, move forward. The good news:  there’s still a chance to stop the takeover of Toronto’s streets, and set precedent that protects individuals and cities across Canada.  We can still stop the anniliation of our privacy and dignity in Canada. 

How?  We can try to stop them in the courts.  That’s what CCLA is doing, arguing in our lawsuit that Waterfront Toronto simply didn’t have the jurisdiction to have entered this deal in the first place, and that the deal violates Charter-protected rights to privacy, liberty and free association.  

Our Court challenge may be our last hope to save our streets from constant surveillance by the biggest data collector on the planet.  That challenge is still happening, and you can join it. 

As Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs negotiate away our rights, CCLA is asking the question:  why would we permit non-stop 24/7 electronic surveillance of our sidewalks and streets and waterfront in the first place?  Nobody has answered that question of why, so let’s go on to ask:  why not?  In a word, so that we can be a face in the crowd.  So that we can keep our dignity and privacy.  So that our rights are respected.  That’s why not. 

Does Google respect your privacy? Google is really bad at telling us how it uses our data, and there are documented cases where it has bent or broken the privacy rules meant to protect us. Here are four examples from just this year: 

  1. Have you turned off location settings on your phone, and then felt your privacy was secure? Users of phones running Google’s Android operating system (75% of the world’s smartphone users!) were misled about how that OS collects and uses location data. Google didn’t tell users up front that if they wanted to opt out of having their real-time location data collected every time they walked around with their phone—i.e., for most of us, all the time–they had to find and turn off tracking in not one but two different places. (Reuters Business News, October 28, 2019) 
  2. How private and sensitive is your health information? DeepMind is an AI company owned by Google. Deepminddeveloped something called the Streams app to help doctors identify at-risk patients. They  got into trouble with the UK Information Commissioner in 2017 because they used the data of about 1.6 million patients from a UK hospital without asking patients permission. At the time, they tried to defuse privacy concerns by saying no patient data would ever connect to Google. In September 2019, Google rolled the app into its own Google Health division. (BBC News, 18 September, 2019). 
  3. How protected are vulnerable children from privacy invasions? Google has used data they’ve collected to target ads at children. Google-subsidiary YouTube illegally collected personal information from children without their parent’s consent and earned many millions of dollars using it to deliver targeted ads before they got caught. (US Federal Trade Commission, September 4, 2019) 
  4. Are you being surveilled in your own home? The Google Home smart speaker was letting human workers at Google and third parties listen to a small percentage of the things people said to the device in their homes, without making it clear to users that recordings might be used this way. Even though the data was anonymized, the creep factor in a speaker that provides access to private words in private homes was high enough the program was cancelled when it was revealed—but that only happened after a leak of confidential audiodata.(CNET, July 2019) 
  5. A hidden microphone in your thermostat: Google said it was “an error on our part” when their Nest smart thermostat was revealed to have a microphone whose existence was never published in device specifications; until February this year, no one who installed a Nest device in their home had any idea there was a microphone in it just waiting to be activated. (CNBC, February 21, 2019) 

If you could have stopped Google from collecting information from hospitals and private homes, would you have? A smart city moves the data collection from online to our streets, businesses, and homes, and that is what we are fighting in Toronto. 

Help us make sure that Toronto doesn’t become the next site for a headline announcing yet another broken privacy promise. Donate to CCLA today.