Snowden on Allo: It's “Google Surveillance,” so “Don't use” messaging and personal assistant app

Edward Snowden's take on Allo is “Nope.” Google's decision to back off a previously promised privacy feature for Allo earned it a thumbs-down from the NSA whistleblower, who received asylum from Russia after exposing the NSA's secret domestic surveillance programs. Allo, a personal messaging and assistance app which lacks previously promised security safeguards, amounts to “Google Surveillance,” Snowden tweeted Wednesday. So “Don't use Allo.”

From the San Jose Mercury News coverage of the privacy concerns over Allo:

At issue for privacy advocates is the artificial intelligence that Google says adds value to the app — but requires the company to read, analyze and hold onto a user’s messaging and other interactions.

Allo, first announced at Google’s I/O developers’ conference in May, went live Tuesday night for Android and iPhones. Competing with Facebook’s Messenger and Apple’s iMessage as a chatting app, it also contains a bot — called Google Assistant — to go up against Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa. The assistant can be invoked within a chat by typing “@Google.”

“All of us want this kind of idea of a valet,” said cybersecurity analyst Dimitri Sirota, CEO of data protection firm BigID. “We see the value in the on-demand environment of having intelligence in the background helping anticipate your needs. It’s incredibly valuable, and I’m sure it’s going to do well.”

Within the messaging function, the AI uses chat histories to suggest written or emoji responses, a service the company calls “Smart Reply.” Users can send a response by tapping it.

The assistant can answer questions and suggest websites, and draw from a user’s search history to give personalized suggestions. It can draw on a user’s inputs to Google services — for example, finding images in Google Photos — or call up appointments made in Calendar.


Google says they've addressed these concerns.

Allo users can delete all message text and interactions with the assistant, if they know about that option -- and users can select end-to-end encryption before starting a conversation.

“We've given users transparency and control over their data in Google Allo," a Google spokesperson emailed reporters in reply to the Snowden tweet. "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.”

Privacy advocates including Snowden say that's not enough, and Google knows it. From the Independent:

[T]he 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.

If you're curious about how Allo works and what the user experience feels like, Brian Chen's review in the New York Times is a good place to start. Chen writes,

I tested Allo for five days and compared it with the apps that are most similar to it: Google Hangouts, Apple iMessage and Facebook Messenger. After weighing the pros and cons, my advice is that people can hold off on downloading Allo, largely because its artificially intelligent assistant was unhelpful. But if Allo matures, users will probably want to ditch the Hangouts app.

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