Allo, Google’s new messaging app, is receiving mixed reviews for its security of users’ messages. The app has built-in Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology called Google Assistant, which generates automatic responses and makes other suggestions to assist users in day-to-day life. In order for Assistant to work, however, Google has removed default end-to-end encryption, which means that conversations are not as private as users were first led to believe.
What you need to know about the Google Allo privacy dispute
End-to-end encryption secures users’ conversations from hackers, and those involved in law enforcement and national security. For its Smart Reply technology to work, Google Assistant needs to read messages. The more data they have to work with, the better the replies will be. At the same time, this means that standard conversations on Allo can not only be read by the people that write and receive them, but by Google and anyone else with a lawful warrant. Messaging services like Facebook’s Whatsapp and Apple’s iMessage use default end-to-end encryption, whereas Allo users must actively choose to switch on the encryption setting.
Of further concern is that Google backtracked on its promise in May to only keep messages temporarily and anonymously, so that conversations could not be retained on Google servers or linked back to their sender. Allo allows chat logs to be stored indefinitely unless the user actively deletes the messages.
Users can, however, change the defaults on Allo so that end-to-end encryption and ephemeral messages are turned on. It’s called Incognito Mode, which also disables access to Google Assistant.
Where does this leave us?
With the rapid growth of technology, notions of transparency and control have become more important than ever. While it is clear that Google is still giving users a choice, it is evidently in a direction that is less secure. Whether users choose to use Allo and the Smart Reply feature is ultimately a question of the level of risk they are willing to accept. It may, however, be one in which users may not be entirely comfortable in granting.
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