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Exclusive: Google's security cameras to drop key customization option

Google IO news
Image credit: Nest

You won't be able to toggle off the green status light of a Nest and Dropcam security camera, we discovered today at Google IO 2019. It's good and bad news for users.

Whenever a Nest camera is live, the green light will shine – soon without user control that used to be there before, according to Google reps we talked to today.

It's being done in the name of privacy from the outset on Nest Hub Max, which has a 127-degree field of view camera atop a 10-inch display. We knew this at the keynote.

Later, TechRadar found out that this will actually take away the toggle feature on the Nest Cam and Dropcam in a future software update. The ability to toggle the status light off and keep the video-capture running will permanently go away 'soon.'

Analysis: why this is a good and bad thing

The decision to rollback the green status light toggle on the Nest app for older Nest cameras was one the team wrestled with prior to Google IO, according to the reps we talked to today. Privacy won out.

For: Always shining that green light on an active Nest Home Hub, Nest Cam or Dropcam is, on one hand, a wise decision for privacy.

It hampers Nest camera owners' ability to spy on people (think of recent news about AirBnB hosts who have been caught spying on guests). It can also alert Nest owners if a hacker gets access to their Nest login and starts watching them. If that green light is on when it's not supposed to be, you know something is up.

Against: A thief doesn't have to be very smart to notice a green light and circumvent your camera – essentially stealing outside of your cone of sight. 

Example: When I was at work six months ago, I had a landlord enter my apartment to 'show my place off' to future tenants without much notice. He picked up some of my belongings (think: a lot of expensive technology on a shelf) and 'inspected' them. When I was there before, he commented how he 'really loved my 360 camera'.

My tech didn't end up walking, but multiple strangers did enter my NYC apartment (I couldn't always be there when at the apartment was shown off), and multiple times people went ahead of grabbed things off my shelf for a look.

Turning on the status light in a situation like this could alert someone to the fact that they're being recorded (not a problem) and they could easily turn their back to the camera and slip something into their pocket out of sight (problem). Or they could 'accidentally' knock the camera out of the way and take everything they wanted (major problem).

Google's decision is a smart shift in privacy PR for the embattled data-hoarding firm. But it may leave some people vulnerable.

The solution? Buy more Nest Cams to get multiple angles.

Matt Swider

US Editor-in-Chief

Matt Swider is TechRadar's gadget-savvy, globe-trotting US Editor-in-Chief Editor who leads the US team in New York City. He began his tech journalism career all the way back in 1999 at the ripe at of 14, and first started writing for TechRadar in 2012. He's tested over 1,000 phones, tablets and wearables and commands a Twitter account of 600,000+ followers. Matt received his journalism degree from Penn State University and is never seen without his TechRadar headphones.