Google Touts Privacy Options, but Still Depends on Your Data

Google’s latest phone and smart-home devices came packaged with a not-so-subtle message: Google cares about your privacy. Does it?

The tech company has had a complicated relationship with user information in the past. Google’s latest steps offer consumers some additional protections, although it’s unclear how much more secure users will feel.

Google unveiled a new Pixel smartphone and other hardware devices on Tuesday, all aimed at getting people more hooked on services powered by the company’s Google Assistant and other artificial-intelligence technology.

But privacy has emerged as a bigger issue with these products thanks to the growing popularity of always-listening “smart speakers” and similar devices. Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Apple have all recently acknowledged employing human contractors to listen to and transcribe some voice recordings captured by AI software.

Most such AI work, from interpreting voice requests to answering questions to turning on your lights, takes place in the cloud, not on your device. Users have very little control of what happens to their data in the cloud.

On Tuesday, though, Google emphasised that much of what you do on its new phones will stay there. Its new facial recognition unlock feature won’t transmit details to Google servers for processing, for instance, and its Assistant can also handle many queries directly on the phone. A new recording transcription feature and radar technology that recognises gestures are also done on the device.

“You need to know what your data is safe,” Rick Osterloh, Google senior vice president of hardware, said at the company’s New York launch event Tuesday. “When computing is always available, designing for computing and privacy becomes more important than ever.”

Apple and Amazon have also emphasised their privacy commitments at recent product launches.

The goal is to give people more choice over privacy settings, Osterloh said. Nest speakers and cameras now come with physical switches to turn off cameras and mics, for example.

Still, Google relies heavily on customer information to build user-specific profiles it uses to target digital advertising, which produces the vast majority of its income.

The Assistant, akin in basic function to Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa , is emerging as Google’s latest digital data collector. It can learn more about you from your queries and can direct you to other Google services such as maps and search, which also feed into Google’s multi-billion dollar advertising business.

“Their end game is trying to collect all this data and target you with advertising,” said Victoria Petrock, principle analyst at eMarketer. “The voice is a whole new way to capture people’s behaviours.”

The more helpful the Assistant becomes, the more likely people are to use it.

On the hardware front, Google’s new Pixel 4 features a fancier camera that will recognise people who’ve appeared previously in your photos in order to automatically focus on them in new shots.

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