Nest Labs Smoke Detector Recall Signals Security Risk to “Internet of Things” but Kudos for its Quick and Open Response

A Nest smoke/carbon monoxide detector is installed in a home in Provo, Utah, January 15, 2014. REUTERS/George Frey

Nest Labs Inc, the maker of smart thermostats that Google Inc acquired for $3.2 billion, called a halt to all sales of its smoke alarms on Thursday after it discovered a possible defect that could cause users to turn it off unintentionally.

Nest Labs’ recall of its “Nest Protect” smoke detector for software problems signals the security risks of the vast array of products that are or will soon be joining smartphones, PC’s and tablets in the online world.

While Nest Labs’ purchase by Google shown a light on the big potential of sensors linking once dumb devices to each other to save energy, increase security, change how we do business, and improve life through technology also come with caveats.

These WiFi-connected and  operated smart devices also create new possibilities for both costly mistakes when the software or hardware that operates “the Internet of Things” goes bust or, worse, is hacked by unsavory individuals or those looking to do harm.  Malware that unlocks front doors, starts or stops cars, or in the case of a “Homeland” episode, kills a sitting U.S. Vice President by a remote-control devise that attacked the computerized defibrillator implanted in his chest while he was using the treadmill– a threat so credible the real former Vice President Cheney that he had his own defibrillator disabled.

Nest Wave was designed to make it easier to silence the alarm temporarily (you burned toast not started a kitchen fire) by simply waving one’s arms beneath it.  The glitch was that arm movement not intended as a wave could be misinterpreted by the detector’s software algorithms.

In the meantime, Nest Labs must be congratulated for catching the software glitch that mistakenly silenced the alarm. The chief executive of Nest, Tony Fadell, said in a letter posted on the company’s website that “We’re enormously sorry for the inconvenience caused by this issue. The team and I are dedicated to ensuring that we can stand behind each Nest product that comes into your home.”

Fadell, one of the Apple creators of the iPod, went on to say, “We observed a unique combination of circumstances that caused us to question whether the Nest Wave … could be unintentionally activated. This could delay an alarm going off if there was a real fire. “The fact that it could even potentially happen is extremely important to me and I want to address it immediately.”

The company is deactivating the feature remotely on detectors already sold (yes, it can do that) until a fix is found and then reactivated.  Customers without WiFi-connected devices should either disable it or return it for a full refund, the company said. Nest is not aware of any customers who experienced the problem.

This timely and appropriate customer care act is coincidentally a book end to GM’s alleged cover-up of knowledge relating to a faulty ignition switch on several of its models that has been linked to the deaths of 13 people and potentially others.  GM is now in corporate crisis as Congress, the Justice Department, and federal regulators are investigating what GM knew, when, and why the fault was not disclosed or corrected in a timely manner, including communicating that information to the families involved in the fatal and non-fatal accidents potentially linked to the ignition switch, not to mention the appropriate regulators.

By announcing the recall so promptly and openly, reputation experts and media analysts are saying Nest Labs made the recall a “non-event.”

In the meantime, GM, after the incessant grilling by both House and Senate investigating committee members, has now hired a full external crisis team to help manage the reputational and legal risks not to mention the failed strategy of having its brand-new CEO speak about the new GM and its stated commitment of focusing on safety and a safety culture.

The story in full in Reuters:

Nick Wingfield’s piece in the NY Times:

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