What Hardware Lies Beneath? Companies Swear They Never Meant to Violate Your Privacy

“Don’t Be Evil” was the mantra of Google from years before even Gmail was created. While certainly less vague than their replacement slogan “Do the Right Thing”, there has been a lot of criticism directed at Google over the past decade and a half for repeatedly being at odds with one of their key values. It seems as though they took this criticism to heart (or found it easier to make money without the slogan), and subsequently dropped it in 2018. Nothing at Google changed, though, as the company has continued with several practices which at best could be considered shady.

The latest was the inclusion of an undisclosed microphone in parts of their smart home system, the Nest Guard. This is a member of the Nest family of products — it is not the thermostat itself, but a base station for a set of home security hardware you can install yourself. The real issue is that this base station was never billed as being voice activated. If you’re someone who has actively avoided installing “always-listening” style devices in your home, it’s infuriating to learn there is hardware out that have microphones in them but no mention of that in the marketing of the product.

Surveillance: The Monitoring Of Behavior, Activities, Or Other Changing Information

While it might be best if we stopped being surprised when Google does something objectively creepy in order to gather yet more data, the sad state of affairs is that these types of practices aren’t limited to Google alone, but seem to be “industry standard” now. While the latest outrage is directed at Google (technically their parent company Alphabet), we could easily focus the microscope on any other company and wonder exactly what hardware is hidden behind the scenes, and what the software is doing that powers it.

2018 Lenovo ThinkPad X1 family advertises a built-in camera shutter branded the “ThinkShutter”

One of the most ubiquitous examples of hardware getting away from our control is the cameras included on almost all laptops. By the end of the ’00s security experts were recommending that the user-facing cameras be covered when not in use so that if any nefarious users gained access to that laptop they at least wouldn’t be able to see anything from the webcam. Some modern laptops even include a slider that serves this purpose. There’s also a Black Mirror episode that uses this attack as a plot point in a much more unsettling story.

But we already know cameras are included in laptops — they are listed in the product specs and visible to the user. In the case of the Nest Guard’s microphone, this was not the case. An undisclosed listening device is new territory.

An Unadvertised Feature vs. a Hidden Microphone

It’s worth diving a little bit more into this particular case as it serves as a lens that we can use to view other oversights and transgressions on our privacy in the hardware we are currently bringing into our daily routines.

Early last month, an announcement was made that users of the Nest Guard base station would soon be able to use the device as a Google Home — a voice activated interface for the Internet-connected Google Assistant. Since Google Home devices need microphones to listen for audio commands from the user, this meant that the Nest Guard has a microphone as well. The microphone was not listed on the spec sheet for the device, though, which is the main point of contention here: A piece of hardware  capable of listening to its users, from a company that is infamous for data collection, was not made public. At best this is an extreme example of a company being tone deaf to the issues their users have with them.

Of course, Google claims that the microphones were never supposed to be a secret, and that they were disabled by default. Google does have a slightly unsettling track record of including hardware in their devices but disabling it until future software upgrades, like they did recently with Bluetooth in the Chromecast. But, even if we could trust Google fully (we can’t, and shouldn’t, put blind trust of our privacy and our data in any company), people buying this hardware never had the opportunity to choose whether or not to put this internet-connected microphone in their homes. Users must be made aware of every hardware specification in the products they are purchasing and installing.

Needless to say, this is why many of us in this community do hardware teardowns. We can’t trust what we can’t see, and we need to know for ourselves what we are getting into.

Airlines Claim They’re Not Watching You, Despite the Cameras

Infotainment system camera on Singapore Airlines flight brought to light by @vkamluk

There are plenty of examples of other companies that have been equally as awkward about privacy and security concerns regarding hardware, even within the most recent news cycle. Singapore Airlines was recently found to have cameras in each one of the seats on its airplanes pointing at the passengers for indeterminate reasons. They played the same card Google played where they made claims about the hardware being disabled. Granted, generic tablets have cameras in them and it’s likely that airlines are repurposing posing these designs for their infotainment hardware. But having a camera pointed at you is creepy, even if you’re assured it will not be activated. Again, even if we could trust a company to have the best interests of its customers at heart, we can’t trust everyone else in the world to politely refrain from using that hardware for their own attacks.

The inclusion of various bits of hardware can raise other concerns beyond data security and privacy. Even networking commonly-used hardware together can cause concerns for one’s own personal safety, as a pair of white hats showed when they were able to disable or control various features on a Jeep. Presumably the intent Chrysler had for including cellular network access on its Jeeps was to protect the safety of its passengers, or even provide them with a convenience, but the security in the system was laughable and could have caused real chaos in the hands of someone who had darker motives.

A Bounty of Apathy; A Lack of Clear Solutions

It’s genuinely surprising that the Nest Guard microphone wasn’t discovered long ago as part of a teardown. While there are people who do teardowns of hardware, many of which can be found in this community, there’s more hardware out there than can possibly be investigated. It would also be hard to obtain some of it, like a seat from a Singapore Airlines airplane.

The solution to these problems seems to be elusive as well. Even if we would like to trust corporations with our security, privacy, or even safety, most of them have demonstrated that this is not a key concern of theirs. This also doesn’t solve the separate problem that the vectors for attack by bad actors are magnified with the addition of more and more hardware, especially as devices with network access balloon in numbers with the growth of the Internet of Things. There aren’t even enough Stallman-approved laptops (update: it has Trisquel installed now) to go around for us to have even a modicum of peace-of-mind when using a personal computer.

Compounding the issue, the vast majority of users are complicit in the problem. Most people don’t seem to be that concerned until something really devastating actually happens, and then frustratingly they forget about it moments later. Consider that the recent rash of humongous data breaches at Target, Equifax, Mariott, and the like haven’t stopped people from patronizing those businesses. Few owners of Nest equipment will toss it based on the news that it includes a previously undisclosed microphone. Perhaps the only news here is that nothing is likely to change regardless of how much shock we feign at Google, Facebook, or any other company every time they put profit ahead of users’ best interest.

72 thoughts on “What Hardware Lies Beneath? Companies Swear They Never Meant to Violate Your Privacy

  1. And I never meant to not pay for that program, I swear!

    I never meant to use a fake name for program registration, I swear!

    I never meant to share the program, with 1000 of my closest friends, I swear!

  2. “how much shock we feign at Google, Facebook, or any other company every time they put profit ahead of users’ best interest”
    I’m not sure that’s the right view. It surely costs more to add unused hardware (e.g. mics) to a device’s BOM, so they’re probably creating future option value by adding it early, at the EXPENSE of profit.

    1. Conspiracy theories aside, as a hardware designer, in my experience, including some extra parts for future development is common, and the cost is negligible, or in some cases less than maintaining a second BOM option with the assembly house.

      … but people like to believe in conspiracy theories.

        1. I have to agree with @elmesito. I’m a hardware designer, in a very similar industry as the Nest products, and it is very common to add small bits of hardware for roadmap features. In my industry, the hardware is expected to last 10 years (much like a thermostat), so putting in the hardware and then pushing a software update that uses that hardware is not uncommon. Especially if you consider that in some cases you can have the user pay for the software update to unlock the new feature. Costs are recuperated and profits are had.

          Sure, its a gamble, but its one that often gets taken.

          Now, for hardware that is expected to be replaced yearly or every couple years (cell phones, etc.) and for hardware the user can service and modify (computers, etc.) then this is a bad gamble. For long term hardware (thermostats, fridges, microwaves, home security systems, etc.) this is a gamble much more easily taken.

          1. Giberish: now, with connected appliances, it’s also true for oven, toaster and fridge: they are meant to be used only few years (and not 10/15years), so I agree with Steve Bacon: it doesnt work as a company will release a new product and drop the software support of the old.

          2. What about expansion ports? It is even more future proof as you could add something that is unforeseen now, whereas adding stuff today is limited to what idea you have today about what you will do in the future, and if you know now, why not just release the feature today?
            (aside the fact that hiding microphones or cameras for “future proofing” some piece of crap is totally unethical and should be banned)

          3. “Especially if you consider that in some cases you can have the user pay for the software update to unlock the new feature. ”

            Didn’t work with Intel CPUs.

      1. Not a conspiracy theory if it true is it? Not sure what to say if anyone hasn’t noticed the advancement of Ai working for google under the umbrella of “improving user experience”. Used to be talk about this or that and get an add a week or a few days later for whatever you were talking about, now the turnover is a day. Your conspiracy theory is called denial.

        1. I base my opinions on facts, and not rumours. There is no denying that the possibility to spy is there, but frankly we are voluntarily giving away such a lot of information about our selves, with the use of credit cards, phones, loyalty cards, online shopping… and so on, that does it really make a difference? Thankfully we still have the choice not to buy the products that might spy on us.

          1. The issue is when you can’t buy products that don’t spy on you. I suppose we can all become Amish and not have anything electronic. We give our stuff away because we don’t have enough choices to not give out stuff away. If life starts to become too much work to avoid giving our ‘stuff’ away, there might be an issue. Say, do you know what your advertising I.D is? Can you opt out of that? Who even uses them? Did you know you have multiple adverising I.D? Does an advertising I.D even benefit us? So there are a million ways from Sunday to collect data from people, whether they want to participate or not, but it is ok now to accept manufacturers to hide mics in devices because we give our ‘stuff’ away everywhere else, with no means of opting out of giving our ‘stuff’ away. This sounds good, yes?

          2. I will give a real world example, happened last week, we didn’t sign up for anything, by anything I mean features for making some shopping experience on the internet easier, we in fact do the opposite, and we weren’t actually shopping. Any way, here is how far we have come, and it will get worse, so there is no ‘theory’ about it. Here we go, the story….
            My wife is looking online for Honda’s, we need a new vehicle, she knowz enough to stay away from mom and pop ‘dealers’, she Google’s the typical terms, comes to Car Fax site, finds a suitable Honda, clicks on it and starts to read about said vehicle, look at the pictures, discovers it is pretty close to us, gets up from the sofa to show me, the phone rings, sometime around 8:30 PM, she answers it, it is the Honda dealership. They say ‘re see you are looking at one of our Honda’s….. We go look at said Honda, while I’m there I ask the guy how they knew we were looking at the vehicle, he says they have a ‘deal’ with Car Fax, this is all he knows. Does anyone see an issue with this? This mic so innocently placed in some hardware device for ‘future upgrades’ is a tool, like the phone camera, like the smart tv, maybe any tv now, like any other device manufactured in recent times. If the logic is essentially ‘ one time we decided to bank online to save some paper, this leads to cameras and microphone in everything’ then somewhere along the line common sense has disappeared. This logic would dictate a screwdriver can now have a microphone and camera in it. One must separate what is ‘right’ from what one enjoys, other wise you start throwing liberties away. Privacy is a big one, Google, well, they just move the bar in a bad direction under the guise of ‘making the experience fornthe user better’.

          3. You say you base your opinions on facts and then immediately contradict yourself by just shrugging and saying, “We already do it, so what’s the difference?” That’s not a justification. That’s rationalization.

            The difference is one is consensual, knowing release of personal data and the other is definitively not.

  3. All Google hardware is capable of more than the software can. Hardware isn’t upgradable, so has to be future proofed. In the iot world, that’s hard. Google/Nest chucked WiFi, Bluetooth, ZigBee, microphones and other stuff in there from day 1.

    So the question really is – why have there not been any teardowns that have spotted it. Microphones are hardly difficult to identify, even the tiny digital ones.

    1. That’s a good point. When these sorts of products are designed, the feature creep risk is huge because the hardware folks aren’t designing for the minimum viable product — they have to think downrange through the entire life cycle of the device. Google, et. al. doesn’t like disclosing this stuff because it then means that there’s pressure from consumers to make it functional (“If it has a microphone, then why doesn’t it respond to my voice?”).

    2. My Nexus 6 had an LED indicator that was never turned on in official firmware. My SmartThings hub has a bluetooth radio that’s never been used. I get that Google’s history makes the microphone thing sensational, but I don’t find the reality of un-enabled features not advertised to be particularly surprising.

    3. ” Microphones are hardly difficult to identify, even the tiny digital ones.”

      Well, that can be a matter of perspective, one of our products has a microphone in a SMD 3×6 mm chip,
      a tiny hole on top of the chip is the microphone opening. The silk screen the chip is mounted on does not have
      “mic”. One could also think it was for reading barometric pressure if they even spotted it on the 20×30 cm circuit board. The tiny hole in the case about the microphone could be mistaken for a “Reset” opening.

    4. Future proofed? From the company working on the, what is it, Pixel 7 by now? These companies come out with new models basically yearly, but you contend that they have a determined eye toward future proofing? I’m not buying it.

  4. I was at a restaurant and noticed a camera in the tabletop ordering kiosk tablet thing. The server found it amusing that I turned the unit around to face the wall and refused to use it.

        1. There is no valid reason for this unless the data and you are being sold to other companies.

          And besides it’s rude. Yeah I know the younger generation has no issues spilling it’s collective guts on the web and such. But for me and other older folks, I wouldn’t go near any eatery that does that. If I did, the device would cease to work rather quickly.

  5. Continue Reading ->

    Especially the mobile version of the site makes have to scroll the entire article a chore. I’ve started reading Less and less when 70-80% of the article is visible instead of just the headline and the first paragraph.

  6. While you certainly do have right to privacy in your own home, and in public spaces, the inside of a company-owned airplane is a different matter. In fact, the crew is already *required* by law to watch and monitor the passengers — up until now it was just done without additional technological aids. And there is a good reason for it, too — if you can detect that a passenger is not well — getting sick, panicking or maybe even fainting — early enough, you can act before any permanent damage happens and situation slips out of your control. Cameras on an airplane are actually an excellent idea, and I’m shocked they are not a standard.

    1. Although in 2014, GogoAir was caught issuing fake SSL certificates on their inflight wifi networks. https://www.neowin.net/news/gogo-inflight-internet-is-intentionally-issuing-fake-ssl-certificates. Actually this was found out and publicized by Adrienne Porter Felt, a Google security engineer. Notably, they apparently only did this on commercial flights, not by the separate GogoAir Business division for private plane. So there’s precedent for suspicion of invasions of privacy on planes. I also don’t think there’s been many cases where “permanent damage” has been caused by unidentified illness, Personally, I don’t think “airsickness” or “panicking” is a justifiable reason for the invasion of privacy, especially without prior knowledge or permission of passengers. I’m sure there’s many who would refuse to be subject to this surveillance in any case. Not to mention the argument is a slippery slope. In China, highways have overhead cameras every few miles in areas of heavy traffic, that take pictures of drivers and front seat passengers to check that they are not texting or committing sexual acts (I kid you not). Ironically, these cameras flash continuously in order to capture behind the windshields, which I can only imagine decreases safety. Imagine surveillance cameras in buses, taxis and all manner of transportation “to detect ill passengers”.

      1. Where do you live? Buses and public transportation in many places have had cameras for ages, even when every scientific study around it has proven that they do not affect criminal rates at all.

        1. CCTV isn’t about prevention any more it’s about prosecution.

          In Saudi they will cut your hand off for stealing. I’ve never been to a place so rife with theft, it’s unbelivable consdiering the punishment and mock trials.

          In the west we dont follow up and prosecute.

  7. My thought on the airline camera thing is… why didn’t the airlines put a sticker over the cameras if they have no intention of using them? A sticker with the airline logo wouldn’t be out of place at all.

    But more to the point… now that a huge public stink has been made, why aren’t they falling all over themselves to sticker them as fast as they can?

    1. Probably because people don’t fly that casually, and it doesn’t actually lose any sales. It is just media time somebody is spending.

      If they were a burger stand, they’d care more.

  8. Me I like this one. And its from ME.

    I helped put together a new Hospital in Oakville Ontario a couple of years ago.
    I told them and should them how a board 14 year old could take over all the lighting in the Hospital. Including the Operating rooms. The thing is I should them in less then 10 min. I had control of the building. They said to me that there was no way they could afford to redo the lighting control. Money really talks. What fun I could have if I was a teenager today.
    Everything from free internet to blocking the internet at some random place for less then 5$ to mentoring the 315 mhz to 8 ghz and then overpowering a said system for less then $50.
    It is realy scary that for so little money you could shut down a city or a good portion of it.
    You can even grabs someones credit card Info from 30′ away.
    And then there is Pokemon Go with all of the demands from the software company that they demanded from our KIDS so they could play that game. You gave up everything to even them having the right to use your phone for all most anything that they wanted. ( And I know that that was when the game first came out.) But I you still have the original game installed they still have that agreement.

  9. Trust me, those cameras on the IFE system will NOT be enabled unless the airline forks over the dough, wheelbarrows full, to add whatever software feature requires them. The IFE hardware prices are pretty high (they are flight certificated by many international agencies for a variety of aircraft), but the huge profit for the IFE companies is in the apps they sell. Every feature – games, in-flight map, shopping cart, survey, whatever – is selected from a catalog and each has a price tag.

    That aside, if you do a little research you will find the real answer. The cameras are there for possible video chat, gesture control, IFE operation by face/eye tracking, and other such applications. Monitoring for sick passengers? HA!
    The flight crew is too busy doing other tasks to be bothered to watch the screen controlling the IFE system throughout the flight.

    Satellite bandwidth costs too much to be going all Big Brother by recording passengers during the flight.

    1. Live video even SD would eat up all the up upstream bandwidth.
      I see no dot projector so not good for reliable face recognition but the security apparatus in many countries have used things that were at a best half baked in the past.

    2. Well, why would they need to upload it live? They could just store it on an SSD and upload while on the ground. Then when they have everything working, it runs on a tiny server on the plane, and the airline buys an app that tells them who is exactly restless enough to buy another drink or who is willing to buy an upgraded meal if you offer it.

      I doubt they’re taking it that far, as the profit sounds like peanuts, I’m just saying that satellite bandwidth isn’t a very good argument.

    1. I need to have cameras everywhere to observe me, so I know that I’m somewhere! If you don’t even have a position in space, how can you even be sure you still exist?! :)

      1. Not knowing exactly where you are (or how fast you are moving) has been a disturbing thing for everyone at various points in time. Being fond of foxes, I found a product that helps me deal with the fact that people don’t get hugged enough and to make a nice physics joke that remarkably many don’t think is funny unless they are totally comfortable with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Anyway, I bought these very large weighted huggable, plush foxes for all my kids, my wife and of course myself. (they have lots of other virtues but they aren’t relavant here) I named mine Heisenberg because when I hug him close I know exactly where he is and exactly how fast he is going (at least relative to me anyway) – a toung-in-cheek jab at the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which I do believe in but like to joke about. The big guy also is very satifying to hug when things are scary and or uncertain. So, he and the others help everyone deal with uncertaintly and for me – doubly. :-) I know the whole matter is rather silly but it works for me. :-) It’s a very good product although it isn’t as cheap as some would want, the quality is there.
        https://smile.amazon.com/dp/B00GWO15XE/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_U_8MiJCbXZH22DH

  10. If I was being nefarious in the design of a webcam shutter I might make it out of IR-transmissive plastic – so it looks like the camera is “blind” but it can in fact still see you.

    I’m sure no-one would do that though.

  11. I think it is a little ridiculous to complain about the device having an undocumented microphone.

    If the device is voice-activated….is it really necessary to state that it has a microphone ?
    it would common-sense to assume that it does….or it couldn’t listen to you.

    If, however, the device isn’t voice-activated and it doesn’t provide any feature that requires listening — then and only then would I agree that the presence of a listening component (a microphone) should be documented.

  12. The solution is to avoid devices from Google, Amazon or Facebook. And treat any home you visit that has this corporate Big Brother hardware in it as no better than a police interrogation room.

    It’s been proven these companies are not our friends, we are products to them, they gather our personal information and sell to god knows who.

    Look at Google, they’re in bed with Chinese Communists and they have helped the commies put people in prison and even murdered. They are very evil people,

    Same applies to Apple feminine hygiene products and any tablet or cell phone. You want privacy from them? Pull out the battery. If you have a Apple you can’t. Just hide it in a copper foil lined pouch.

  13. Does Amazon publish the fact that Dash Buttons have a microphone? They do. A few years ago, that wasn’t a serious expectation, so I’m not sure it’s fair to retroactively put too much blame on Google for this one. They ship dozens of hardware products, it’s not too surprising that this mistake happened, and if we don’t occasionally forgive companies for minor mistakes, we won’t have nice things.

    1. What do you mean with forgiving them?
      Bugs have real life consequences, the fact that they’d get a way with a “oops, that was a mistake, let me do an upgrade” is not encouraging when they also have cars running software in the streets. What’s gonna happen if it runs into you? I wonder if you’d be so forgiving.

      Try crossing a red light and then tell the police officer it was a mistake see how far you go.

  14. Lenovo gives you a dinky plastic door for the built-in camera but in the meantime continues to get caught installing backdoors and keyloggers. Maybe not in the last year, but it’s only a matter of time in my opinion. It happened enough that they are proven untrustworthy. Uninstall all your Moto software, too. That Moto I had the details were buried but they tell you right in the EULA that they will steal your data.

  15. I would like to offer an interesting comparison to the case in the article.

    There are webcams in almost every modern laptop now, and there is a reasonable expectation that the user has control over when it is used. [1] [2] At the same time, webcams are actually pretty lousy targets compared to the files on the computer. [3]

    Regardless, people are very uncomfortable with the presence of these webcams, to where products like the thinkshutter have real marketing appeal. Even Purism’s laptops (which are built and feature an OS intended for the purpose of respecting the user’s fredomz) have “kill switches” for these features to provide what we can then only assume is comfort factor.

    As noted in the article above, people have only passing anger towards what may be a credible threat [4] but at the same time their distrust is sufficiently sustained that it influences product design and marketing decisions when a reasonably benign threat is readily visible.

    It points out that people really only think about what is readily visible to them, and their mental models of systems don’t tend to penetrate much more than skin deep, especially in the case of emotive ones.

    [1] Yes, windows gets viruses, but the *majority* of windows machines are generally pretty virus-free to the best of anyone’s knowledge.
    [2] Most (but not all) of the time we don’t find stuff that’s intentionally installed on a computer making unknown use of the microphone or camera.
    [3] Tax information, online banking logins, ect.
    [4] An unseen microphone concealed in a device by a data-hungry company

  16. I’m wondering why the attorney’s general aren’t racing to file felony wiretapping charges. Just because ‘the mic is disabled’ doesn’t necessarily make it legal. Hey, can I put a remotely activated bomb in your home, and just ‘leave it off’ until you approve (*wink wink)? You can be sure your bomb will always be there waiting for you, since we only use state-of-the-art remote control software – readily available at any hobby shop! It has pretty lights and soothing sounds for aligning your Chakras, just never mind that whole ‘really dangerous’ part. Order yours today!

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