Consumer privacy in the era of big tech companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon may not be a hot button topic on the level of healthcare or gun control, but heading into the 2020 presidential election, it's certainly gaining steam.
Every Democratic candidate vying for a chance to face off against President Trump will need a stance on consumer privacy in the current age of smartphone ubiquity, artificial intelligence, and data breaches that happen seemingly every other day.
With Tuesday's news that Google failed to let consumers know about a hidden microphone in its Nest security devices, some Democratic candidates took the opportunity to voice their stances on privacy, especially as it relates to consumer technology.
California Senator Kamala Harris responded to the Nest news, telling Business Insider in an email statement that: "Americans should not have to fear that the products in their home could be spying on them."
Harris has been tough on technology companies in the past over their failure to keep consumer information secure.
When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared before Congress last April, Harris led him down a line of questioning that concluded with the 34-year-old billionaire admitting his company should have let the 87 million affected users know sooner about Cambridge Analytica and the mishandling of their information.
"'It's easier to ask for forgiveness than seek permission' or 'it's in the fine print' are not workable privacy policies," Harris told Business Insider. "But they're ones that tech companies routinely fall back on."
Another 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful, former Maryland Congressman John Delaney, told Business Insider in an interview Thursday that Google's failure to disclose proper information about its Nest security device is another example of why privacy legislation needs to apply to a broad range of tech products, not just the data collected on the internet or on mobile phones.
Food labels for tech products
"[We] Need to pass laws requiring the disclosure of privacy related issues beyond your portable devices, which is what everyone narrowly thinks, "Delaney said." Alarm systems that are installed in people's homes, there are privacy implications related to them. "
Delaney likens the lack of information on consumer tech products today to food products before the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made it a law that ingredients needed to be included on labels.
"We have requirements through the FDA on labeling. And so obviously there was a time in this country's history when we did not have those things and society got more progressive in thinking about the needs of its citizens and said, 'Hey, this is a good thing for us to do to protect our citizens, "Delaney told us. "And that's the analogy here, which is labeling on electronic devices. That does not mean you need to describe what microchip is in it. But it does mean that if there are implications in the device that relate to your privacy, it should be disclosed. "
Before Tuesday, Nest gave consumers no indication on its packaging or website that a microphone was embedded in its Nest Guard – the central hub of the Nest Secure home security product. Although the microphone was not enabled, Google acknowledged this week that it erred in not letting customers know about its existence.
"The on-device microphone was never intended to be a secret and should have been listed in the tech specs," a Google spokesperson told Business Insider earlier this week. "That was an error on our part."
As of Thursday, Nest's website has been updated to include mention of the microphone in its Nest Secure spec sheet.
More lawmakers are concerned – "another classic screw up by another creepy tech company '
A number of other lawmakers weighed in to the revelation that Google's Nest product contained a secret microphone.
Virginia Senator Mark Warner, a leading privacy advocate and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told Business Insider that Google's failure to disclose the components of its security device is "totally at odds with consumer expectations."
"The standard talking point that consumers 'do not care about privacy' has been increasingly disproven, as we learn that consumers and policymakers have been kept in the dark for years about data collection and commercialization practices," Warner said. "Both responsible federal agencies and the U.S. Congress must have hearings to shine a light on the dark underbelly of the digital economy, including how incumbents are shaping the smart home ecosystem in potentially unfair and anti-competitive ways."
Read more: A major privacy advocacy group is calling on the FTC to force Google to divest the Nest business after it failed to let consumers know about a hidden microphone
Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat who is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, echoed the need for better transparency when it comes to consumer tech products.
"Every sensor in every electronic device should be clearly identified to consumers prior to purchase," Wyden told us. "Americans may choose to put various sensors in their homes or in their pockets for the utility they offer, but they must always know they're doing it, and it must always be a choice."
Missouri Senator Josh Hawley called the Nest news "another classic screw up by another creepy tech company."
"This time, Google is shamelessly surveilling customers with a secret microphone, used for who knows what – and here we are again with their asks for forgiveness after the fact," Hawley, a Republican, told us. "The American people are wise to these kinds of tricks and it's time for these tech giants to be held accountable."
Louisiana Attorney General, Jeff Landry – who said last September that he wanted major tech companies like Google and Facebook to be "broken up like the federal government did to Standard Oil more than a century ago" – also reacted to the recent Nest microphone revelation.
"Google is probably the most legal and tech savvy company in the world. For them to say 'oops, we forgot' is disingenuous at best," Landry told Business Insider. "There seems to always be some excuse from them. Frankly, it's getting old."
When we asked if the attorney general plans to open up his own investigation into Google after its most recent privacy mishap, Landry said: "I never shut the door on any avenue to protect the privacy and interest of Louisiana citizens. As President of the National Association of Attorneys General, I will certainly speak with my colleagues regarding this issue as we do on a range of issues affecting our states and the nation. "