The launch of the new chat app – which Google had hoped would focus on its use of artificial intelligence and the huge amounts of information it stores – has in fact revolved around the threat to privacy and safety that it represents. It culminated with a warning from Edward Snowden that nobody should use the app.
It was just the latest reminder that our messaging apps might not be as private as they seem. And that is very private indeed – unlike social networks and other semi-public spaces, messages are perhaps the most sacred and private spaces on the entire internet.
Allo was intended as a demonstration in part of the way that Google can use its access to all the world’s information to make life easier for people. It includes an assistant that can be asked things in natural language and will provide an answer, for instance, and a smart replies feature that can scan what people tend to say and help suggest things for them.
Google says that collecting the data makes that more useful – the better and more information it has, the better and more helpful the suggestions will be. But many people said that it makes it more worrying, too, since by collecting that information it appeared to be putting people at risk of government spying and other worries.
And the complaints were further compounded by the fact that Google appeared to have walked back its initial commitments to privacy. It had first suggested that it would only store some information, and get rid of it after a short time – but now it seems that all the data is readable by Google, and will be forever unless a user deletes it, which Google gives them the option to do.
There is a way to turn off Google’s data collection in Allo. But that means starting a specific kind of conversation – an “Incognito” one – in which it also doesn’t use any of its special features and becomes like any other chat app.
“We've given users transparency and control over their data in Google Allo," said a Google spokesperson. "And our approach is simple -- your chat history is saved for you until you choose to delete it. You can delete single messages or entire conversations in Allo.
"We also provide the option to chat in Incognito mode, where messages are end-to-end encrypted and you can set a timer to automatically delete messages for your device and the person you’re chatting with's device at a set time.”
Google isn’t the first company to run into trouble with chats recently. WhatsApp announced last month that it would start sharing data with Facebook – not chats, which are encrypted and unreadable, but details about who people speak to and have in their contacts.
A controversy erupted, perhaps one of the biggest privacy stories in recent years. And it seemed to be a result of the personal nature of what was at stake, since messages to our friends seem like one of the most sacred things we do with our phone.
That was something that has led many companies to adopt a commitment to end-to-end encryption. That feature – present in WhatsApp and iMessage – means that messages are scrambled so that they can only ever be opened by the phone that they’re being sent to, and so can’t be intercepted even if the companies wanted to.
Such decisions have got companies including Apple and WhatsApp itself into trouble in the past. Apple has been pursued by the FBI over access to a phone, and WhatsApp officials have been detained in Brazil and the app has been shut down for not being able to hand over information.
It might be such problems that Google was looking to avoid with its change. Since the information isn’t encrypted when stored, it makes it far easier to comply with government requests, and the information will be available to anyone with a valid warrant.
But it’s just as likely that it’s the result of a decision about how much we value our privacy. We have to decide whether we want to give our data to Google and companies like it – whether the fun of smart suggestions and all the world’s knowledge is worth everyone eventually knowing a lot more about us, too.
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