Google debuted a device called the at its developer conference on Tuesday. It's the first product , which combines the formerly distinct Google smart home and Nest teams. The Hub Max features a 10-inch high-definition touchscreen, powerful speakers, always-listening microphones and an embedded camera that can recognize your face.
Just a few months ago, Google launched a similar but smaller product called the Google Home Hub, which will be renamed the Google Nest Hub to showcase the new brand. The Nest Hub doesn't have a camera, and Google touted the omission as a way to give privacy-focused customers peace of mind.
The camera on the Hub Max is the smartest cam on any smart display. In addition to recognizing your face, you can use it as a security monitor and get alerts if it detects motion. It's also smart enough to recognize gestures and track your motion if you're moving around while on a video call.
The Hub Max is impressive, but it's also potentially worrisome to have a camera like that watching you in your home. Google undoubtedly understood the concerns people would have with the Hub Max. Here's how the search giant intends to keep yourintact with the Hub Max.
A new frontier for privacy
"We have to be better about our transparency, about how we actually deal with your data and your devices inside your home." Rishi Chandra, the Google VP in charge of the new Google Nest brand, talked with me last week at Google headquarters in Mountain View, CA about the Hub Max and the challenges of privacy in a home with a variety of cameras and sensors.
"As we are defining our privacy principles, one thing we wanted to commit to was any time a camera is streaming information to Google, whether it's through a Google Duo call or a Nest Cam feature, we want to be very transparent to the user that it's happening."
The Hub Max indicates that the camera is recording with a green light and a message on the screen. The green light will always be on when it's recording, even if you're not home and checking on the stream from your phone. You won't be able to use the Hub Max to secretly spy on anyone.
Chandra noted that the mandatory green light is actually a shift for Nest Cams. Their default setting is to show a green light when they're recording, but previously you could turn that off in the settings. Google is removing that option. While this move removes a customization option from the cam, it's part of what Chandra called a new set of privacy principles from Nest.
"We want to make sure that we as Google are transparent to everyone," Chandra said. "When it's going to Google, when it's being recorded, that we are transparent to any user that comes into your house, whether it be the babysitter, the nanny, your guests, your family members, what have you."
Chandra noted that these steps are necessary as we move away from tech that's strictly personal, such as a smartphone, toward tech that needs to be both communal and personal. He called the Google Nest Hub Max a representation of how the company wants to approach this dichotomy while keeping privacy intact.
Anyone can interact with the Hub Max, but the Face Match feature allows it to also offer personalized notifications and information. Chandra called Face Match an example of how Google can "rethink the computing model to do really helpful things, but in a privacy sensitive way."
The Face Match feature is optional. Chandra said the Hub Max will store all face models on the device itself and it will perform the processing locally as well so that the information never leaves the Hub Max.
Blake Kozak, a senior analyst at smart home and security analysis firm IHS noted that as far as security cams in general, on-device storage provides "an enhanced-level of security compared with cloud-storage. By storing footage locally, consumers can rest assured that the risk of hackers gaining access to the footage is far less than if the footage is stored in the cloud."
Several Google representatives also noted that Face Match is meant solely as a personalization feature and it's not meant for security. You won't be able to make purchases on the Hub Max verified only by your face.
Cameras and data
The mute switch on the back of the Nest Hub Max will also function as a hard switch for the camera. It will essentially cut power to the cam so it can't be used. Even though the switch is functionally the same as a physical shutter, I'm sure an actual physical shutter would give added peace of mind to some shoppers.
"Overall, many manufacturers, especially in Europe, are making security cameras with shutters," said Kozak. "So when the camera is off or not recording, it is clear for the consumer that their privacy is intact."
In addition to disabling Face Match, you can use the settings in the Google Home app to disable any drop-in viewing of the camera -- so you won't be able to check on the live feed of the cam when you're out and about.
You'll also find a tab in the Google Assistant app settings called "You." While the tab can help you see more personalized search results and organize your contacts, it will also house your activity history and privacy settings in one place so you can easily make changes.
Competing for privacy
Google isn't the only company with a renewed emphasis on privacy. Last week, Facebook touted a new . CEO Mark Zuckerberg said "The future is private" and announced scholarships to help students create secure and private artificial intelligence. Facebook has been mired in privacy scandals recently, including the and .
Amazon, Google's main competitor in the smart home space, came under fire recently when it was revealed that with the company's digital assistant and had access to private data. Google faced backlash recently as well after it was revealed that the hub of the Nest Secure system -- the Nest Guard -- had a .
With the Hub Max's new facial recognition abilities, Google is stepping into an. Storing all Face Match data locally is a nice touch, but you can still use the cam as a security device and with Nest's premium Nest Aware subscription, it can use facial recognition to customize alerts based on who it sees.
If having an extra camera in your home will make you worried, Google will continue to offer the cameraless Google Nest Hub. As far as the Hub Max, Google is saying the right things at the very least. I also appreciate the new "You" tab and hope it legitimately makes it easier to manage your privacy and usage settings. That said, only time will tell if the company's promises of privacy will hold up to its growing roster of increasingly personalized smart home gadgets.