Google finally releases their messaging app for both Android and iOS this Wednesday. Although the app received appreciation for its simplistic design and fun chat with Assistant, some people are genuinely concerned about some features which are supposedly invading privacy of users. Well known internet phenomenon and privacy champion Edward Snowden went on a rant against Google Allo on twitter.
What is #Allo? A Google app that records every message you ever send and makes it available to police upon request. https://t.co/EdPRC0G7Py
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) September 21, 2016
Free for download today: Google Mail, Google Maps, and Google Surveillance. That's #Allo. Don't use Allo. https://t.co/EdPRC0G7Py
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) September 21, 2016
Let’s first look at the actual issue with privacy while using Google Allo and then we can decide whether it is something to worry about or not.
Where did Google went wrong?
When Google first announced Allo, it said that it will have end to end encryption for incognito chats and will only store chats temporarily on its servers. Even though incognito chats are still end to end encrypted, Google has decided to store previous messages of a user in their severs until they have been delivered to said user.
What it means is that if you are using Allo and you turn off your device or uninstall the application, all the messages sent to you by others will be stored on Google’s servers until you connect to Allo again and messages can finally be delivered to you. Some, including Edward Snowden, view it as a potential risk as all your messages may fall into hands of authorities upon issuance of a simple court order.
Another problem users have with Allo is that the Assistant feature supposedly monitors all your incoming messages and your replies. It sends the data to the server and then uses it to provide you with relative content to you through extensive machine learning algorithms. Concerned users consider this to be a violation of their privacy and thus are uneasy while using Allo.
So Google goes through your messages… What else is new in the world?
Let’s be honest here, Google already has enough data about you. If you have a Google account and an Android phone, there is no way to protect your privacy from Google. From which things you search on Google, what you watch most on YouTube, which apps you have installed, your email correspondences, the list of things Google knows about you goes on and on. Google knows a lot about you, and it is not a bad thing in my opinion. Google knows which teams I follow, so it tells me when my favorite team is playing its match. It knows which route I take to University each day, so it informs me if there is any traffic blockage on the way. In short, Google uses this information to make my life a little easier.
That’s exactly what Google is asking you to compromise. You can either choose privacy or you can choose convenience. I will always choose convenience over privacy when presented with this choice. And this is exactly what it is, a choice. You can choose to install Allo and benefit from the features of Google assistant, or you can choose not to.
Does Allo really need to store your messages?
Well it doesn’t, unless you want to receive all your messages even after losing internet connectivity for a day or two. Google says it will store the messages on the server as long as they are not delivered to you. It might raise some eyebrows over possible disclosure of information to concerned authorities, but you have to keep in mind that almost all other messaging services, except those with end to end encryption, do the same. Facebook stores all your messages on the server so you can access them anywhere.
In addition to online services, all the telecom operators in Pakistan have complete access to your data. So in the case of any suspicious activity, authorities have the complete ability to snoop over all communication channels of a person of interest.
There is always the option of incognito chat
If you are really concerned about exchanging sensitive data over Allo, you have the ability to use incognito chat. This will use end to end encryption to make sure that data does not fall into wrong hands.
The lifelong debate of privacy over features
It all boils down to what do you prefer. If you prefer privacy, you can use apps such as Telegram and Signal which are known for their privacy features. These apps will only provide you basic messaging functionality, there will be no intelligent features like Google Assistant. If you want features like that, you will have to give away some semblance of control over your privacy. But if you are like me, who cares more about features which make my life more interesting and easy, you may want to give Allo a try and not pay too much heed to some of the controversial theories about privacy and Google.