Google yesterday announced the launch of Allo, “a smart messaging app that makes your conversations easier and more expressive.” Despite incorporating a technology that has terrifying implications for users’ privacy, Allo is being widely hailed in the press as a positive step forward when it comes to privacy!
So why the apparent contradiction?
The Allo app has two major features of note:
1. Google Assistant – this is designed as a direct competitor to Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Echo. It is a virtual assistant that intelligently answer questions and understand context. As TechCrunch notes,
“This appears to be similar to what Google Now can do already, but it appears to be an upgraded version of it. You can ask a question for an answer, and follow up with multiple questions, with Google picking the conversation out and returning the right answer.”
Yes, you read that right! A “feature” of Allo is that it will listen in to all your messages, and sent them back to Google for its servers to crunch and build up an ever more detailed and intimate model of you with.
“Allo has Smart Reply built in (similar to Inbox), so you can respond to messages without typing a single word. Smart Reply learns over time and will show suggestions that are in your style. For example, it will learn whether you’re more of a ‘haha’ vs. ‘lol’ kind of person. The more you use Allo the more ‘you’ the suggestions will become. Smart Reply also works with photos, providing intelligent suggestions related to the content of the photo. If your friend sends you a photo of tacos, for example, you may see Smart Reply suggestions like ‘yummy’ or ‘I love tacos’.”
So you are actually inviting Google to spy on your private conversations in the name of convenience! Given that Google’s business model is to harvest as much information as it can discover about you so that’s its advertisers can better sell you stuff, this amounts to handing Google your privacy on a plate.
“The Google assistant in Allo understands your world, so you can ask for things like your agenda for the day, details of your flight and hotel, or photos from your last trip.”
And (whatever it says) you can be pretty sure that if Google knows something (everything?) about you, then so can the NSA and GCHQ…
But wait! Google is also a champion of privacy because…
2. Incognito mode – Allo incorporates secure end-to-end encryption using the Signal messaging protocol, which is also used (but not without issues) by WhatsApp. In theory this is a great move, as the Signal protocol is very secure, and it should ensure that the content of messages cannot be accessed by anyone except the sender and intended recipients. However…
Incognito mode is not turned on by default, and will need to be turned on for each individual conversation that you want kept private. This is in sharp contrast, for example, to WhatsApp, which encrypts all conversations by default. As Motherboard convincingly argues,
“Google is banking on the idea that you won’t want to enable Incognito Mode, and thus won’t enable encryption. Lots of people use Chrome’s Incognito Mode for searching for porn or other sensitive or embarrassing stuff, but how many people use Incognito for every search?”
Google is in the business of datamining, so to shut itself out of users’ data is effectively shooting itself in the foot. In today’s climate of paranoia over government surveillance, it has little choice but to pay lip service to the end-to-end encryption drive. By making Incognito mode opt-in, however, Google manages to look good while at the same time depriving itself of very little real data.
Making encryption opt-in was a decision made by the business and legal teams. It enables Google to mine chats and not piss off governments.
— Christopher Soghoian (@csoghoian) May 18, 2016
It should also be noted that Allo almost certainly suffers from many of the same limitations when it comes to privacy as WhatApp – namely that it is closed source (so who really knows what it is doing), and that metadata is retained. As we should all know by now,
“Metadata absolutely tells you everything about somebody’s life. If you have enough metadata, you don’t really need content.”
Allo is a privacy nightmare!
Between the fact that Google will listen in on all your conversations and process what it learns, and that the lauded Incognito mode in conveniently opt-in only (and on a per-message basis to boot!), Allo constitutes something of an assault on users’ privacy.
You can, of course, disable Google Assistant, but then you lose out on one of Allo’s most interesting and compelling features. You can also be careful to ensure that Incognito mode is turned on whenever you send a message in Allo, but you can be pretty darn confident that your friends, family, and colleges will not be so diligent!
The bottom line is that if you care about abut privacy, then avoid! avoid! avoid!