Only a couple of days before his committee's hearing on data privacy, Senate Commerce Committee chair Roger Wicker headed a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai wanting some answers following a story in Business Insider that the company had failed to disclose that there was a microphone it its Nest Secure home security device.
Google said that not to have mentioned the mics in the devices' technical specs was an "error." The senators want to make sure that was all it was, and that there are no similar errors out there yet to be discovered.
Wicker, joined by Sens. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), chairman of the Consumer Protection Subcommittee, and John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Communications Subcommittee, want to know when Google realized the mics had not been disclosed, how it developed those specs, and more.
In the letter, the senators pointed out that there is growing concern about large tech companies "collecting and using personal data about [consumers] without their knowledge."
They said it was important that Google be "completely transparent" and provide "full disclosure," something that could well be part of general privacy legislation that both Democrats and Republicans are suggesting needs to be hammered out on online privacy.
They also pointed out that Google's chief privacy officer testified last September before the Commerce Committee that "transparency is a core value." They told Pichai that given that pledge, the failure to disclose the mic raised "serious questions" about its commitment to that value.
Even if Google was not using the mic, hackers could have activated it to record illicitly, they said, though not pointing out the irony of using a "secure" device to do so.
The senators want a half dozen questions answered by March 12 (by 5 p.m.), including whether Nests have always had mics, when and how it became aware it had failed to list it in the spec, if Google is aware of any third party having used the device for any unauthorized purpose and whether there are any other "similar omissions" in the tech specs for other Google products.