People

Google's secret home security superpower: Your smart speaker with its always-on mics

Google speakers are listening to more than just voice commands. Using them for home security could supercharge Google's $450 million ADT deal.

The Google Home speaker on a table

Google announced support for the detection of "critical sounds" for paying subscribers of its Nest Aware home security subscription service in May.

Photo: Thomas Kolnowski/Unsplash

Last week, Reddit user Brazedowl received a curious notification on his phone: Google was telling him that a smoke detector in his home had gone off. Brazedowl, a teacher from North Carolina who goes by Drew in real life, knew about the smoke alarm — he was at home himself and had just fried some sausages in his kitchen. But up until that moment, he had no idea that his smart speaker was able to detect such events. "Google just made my dumb smoke detectors smart," he wrote on Reddit. "Pretty rad."

A Google spokesperson told Protocol that the feature was accidentally enabled for some users through a recent software update and has since been rolled back. But in light of Monday's news that Google invested $450 million — acquiring a 6.6% stake — in home security provider ADT, it may be a sign of things to come for Google, as it hints at the company's secret home security superpower: millions of smart speakers already in people's homes.

Once the deal closes, ADT's more than 20,000 installers will also sell Google-made smart displays, security cameras and other hardware, and ADT will more closely integrate Google technology into its own home security offerings. "The goal is to give customers fewer false alarms, more ways to receive alarm events, and better detection of potential incidents inside and around the home," Google Nest VP and GM Rishi Chandra said in a blog post.

Brazedowl wasn't the only Google smart speaker user receiving a possible preview of this kind of incident detection in recent days. Other Reddit users reported getting security alerts after breaking glassware, as well as some false alarms triggered by sounds like popped bubble wrap and high-frequency noises that could be confused with a smoke alarm.

When Reddit user Brazedowl fried some sausages last week, accidentally setting off a smoke alarm, his Google Home smart speaker sent alerts to his phone.Screenshot: Reddit

Google announced support for the detection of "critical sounds" for paying subscribers of its Nest Aware home security subscription service in May. "Your Nest speakers and displays will notify you if a critical sound is detected, like a smoke alarm or glass breaking, by sending an alert to the Home app," the company wrote in a blog post. "From there, you can hear an audio clip or listen live within the Home app to confirm the alarm."

"A recent software update enabled these alerts on some of our speakers that didn't have a subscription, but we've since rolled that back," a Google spokesperson told Protocol last week. The spokesperson declined to comment on whether Google had any plans to bring the feature to users without subscriptions in the future. Google did announce Monday that ADT customers would get access to Nest Aware over time.

On the one hand, there is some potential for a privacy backlash. Google has long told users that its speakers only actively monitor ambient audio for utterances of the "Hey Google" wake phrase. Any use of far-field microphones for other purposes, especially for users who didn't sign up for advanced monitoring, could result in some consumers rejecting the device category altogether.

On the other hand, the feature does demonstrate how powerful Google's smart speakers can be in the context of home security. Google sold around 30 million smart speakers and displays in 2019 alone, market research company Strategy Analytics estimated earlier this year. All of these devices feature powerful far-field microphones capable of detecting not only voice commands but also environmental noises.

Some of this functionality is less obvious than the detection of blaring smoke alarms. Google's smart displays sense it if someone walks up to them by emitting and monitoring ultrasonic sounds. Right now, this is being used to change the size of fonts on the display, but the same technology could conceivably also be used to detect possible intruders and other movements inside a home.

Google isn't the first company to rely on smart speakers for monitoring; rival Amazon also uses smart speakers to detect fire alarms and other sounds as part of its Ring Alarm security system.

But in a way, it is a very Google-ish approach to home security: The search giant has long made its own cameras and smoke detectors, with mixed success, and largely failed to make a mark when it introduced its very own home security system in 2017.

With its ADT partnership, Google now signals that it is happy to rely on others for the more mundane aspects of home security, including the huge workforce needed to install and troubleshoot window sensors and the like. Instead, Google is bringing to the table what it does best: advanced technology, including millions of cheap speakers with far-field microphones, ready and able to become smart home security sensors.

Climate

Supreme Court takes a sledgehammer to greenhouse gas regulations

The court ruled 6-3 that the EPA cannot use the Clean Air Act to regulate power plant greenhouse gas emissions. That leaves a patchwork of policies from states, utilities and, increasingly, tech companies to pick up the slack.

The Supreme Court struck a major blow to the federal government's ability to regulate greenhouse gases.

Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Striking down the right to abortion may be the Supreme Court's highest-profile decision this term. But on Wednesday, the court handed down an equally massive verdict on the federal government's ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. In the case of West Virginia v. EPA, the court decided that the agency has no ability to regulate greenhouse gas pollution under the Clean Air Act. Weakening the federal government's powers leaves a patchwork of states, utilities and, increasingly, tech companies to pick up the slack in reducing carbon pollution.

Keep Reading Show less
Brian Kahn

Brian ( @blkahn) is Protocol's climate editor. Previously, he was the managing editor and founding senior writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate site, where he covered everything from the weather to Big Oil's influence on politics. He also reported for Climate Central and the Wall Street Journal. In the even more distant past, he led sleigh rides to visit a herd of 7,000 elk and boat tours on the deepest lake in the U.S.

Every day, millions of us press the “order” button on our favorite coffee store's mobile application: Our chosen brew will be on the counter when we arrive. It’s a personalized, seamless experience that we have all come to expect. What we don’t know is what’s happening behind the scenes. The mobile application is sourcing data from a database that stores information about each customer and what their favorite coffee drinks are. It is also leveraging event-streaming data in real time to ensure the ingredients for your personal coffee are in supply at your local store.

Applications like this power our daily lives, and if they can’t access massive amounts of data stored in a database as well as stream data “in motion” instantaneously, you — and millions of customers — won’t have these in-the-moment experiences.

Keep Reading Show less
Jennifer Goforth Gregory
Jennifer Goforth Gregory has worked in the B2B technology industry for over 20 years. As a freelance writer she writes for top technology brands, including IBM, HPE, Adobe, AT&T, Verizon, Epson, Oracle, Intel and Square. She specializes in a wide range of technology, such as AI, IoT, cloud, cybersecurity, and CX. Jennifer also wrote a bestselling book The Freelance Content Marketing Writer to help other writers launch a high earning freelance business.
Fintech

Can crypto regulate itself? The Lummis-Gillibrand bill hopes so.

Creating the equivalent of the stock markets’ FINRA for crypto is the ideal, but experts doubt that it will be easy.

The idea of creating a government-sanctioned private regulatory association has been drawing more attention in the debate over how to rein in a fast-growing industry whose technological quirks have baffled policymakers.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Regulating crypto is complicated. That’s why Sens. Cynthia Lummis and Kirsten Gillibrand want to explore the creation of a private sector group to help federal regulators do their job.

The bipartisan bill introduced by Lummis and Gillibrand would require the CFTC and the SEC to work with the crypto industry to look into setting up a self-regulatory organization to “facilitate innovative, efficient and orderly markets for digital assets.”

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Enterprise

Alperovitch: Cybersecurity defenders can’t be on high alert every day

With the continued threat of Russian cyber escalation, cybersecurity and geopolitics expert Dmitri Alperovitch says it’s not ideal for the U.S. to oscillate between moments of high alert and lesser states of cyber readiness.

Dmitri Alperovitch (the co-founder and former CTO of CrowdStrike) speaks at RSA Conference 2022.

Photo: RSA Conference

When it comes to cybersecurity vigilance, Dmitri Alperovitch wants to see more focus on resiliency of IT systems — and less on doing "surges" around particular dates or events.

For instance, whatever Russia is doing at the moment.

Keep Reading Show less
Kyle Alspach

Kyle Alspach ( @KyleAlspach) is a senior reporter at Protocol, focused on cybersecurity. He has covered the tech industry since 2010 for outlets including VentureBeat, CRN and the Boston Globe. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and can be reached at kalspach@protocol.com.

Policy

How the internet got privatized and how the government could fix it

Author Ben Tarnoff discusses municipal broadband, Web3 and why closing the “digital divide” isn’t enough.

The Biden administration’s Internet for All initiative, which kicked off in May, will roll out grant programs to expand and improve broadband infrastructure, teach digital skills and improve internet access for “everyone in America by the end of the decade.”

Decisions about who is eligible for these grants will be made based on the Federal Communications Commission’s broken, outdated and incorrect broadband maps — maps the FCC plans to update only after funding has been allocated. Inaccurate broadband maps are just one of many barriers to getting everyone in the country successfully online. Internet service providers that use government funds to connect rural and low-income areas have historically provided those regions with slow speeds and poor service, forcing community residents to find reliable internet outside of their homes.

Keep Reading Show less
Aditi Mukund
Aditi Mukund is Protocol’s Data Analyst. Prior to joining Protocol, she was an analyst at The Daily Beast and NPR where she wrangled data into actionable insights for editorial, audience, commerce, subscription, and product teams. She holds a B.S in Cognitive Science, Human Computer Interaction from The University of California, San Diego.
Latest Stories
Bulletins