Google’s Allo messaging app isn’t making good on its privacy promises

You win some, you lose some.
You win some, you lose some.
Image: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
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At the Google I/O developer conference in May, Allo, the search giant’s contribution to the crowded messaging app market, was pitched as offering unparalleled privacy. But, in officially announcing its release in a blog post last night (Sept. 20), Google played up more common features: stickers, emojis, doodling on photos.

The real differentiator now is ”smart replies”— a predictive feature that automatically suggests text and emoji-based reactions for text messages as well as photos. For instance, if your friend sends you a photo of her pet, you might see suggestions like “aww cute!”

For smart replies to work, Google had to pull back on its promise to not hold onto your chat logs. Logging messages is essential for honing the app’s machine learning system that churns out predictions. Over time, the responses adjust to make recommendations based on how you typically react. For that, it requires some data processing, which would not be possible if the data was permanently unavailable to Google.

Users still have “transparency and control over their data in Google Allo,” a Google spokesperson told Quartz. “Your chat history is saved for you until you choose to delete it.” This applies to individual messages or complete conversations. When a sender elects to wipe their chats clean, it’s immediately taken off their device and the server. The recipient’s copy will persist on their device and Google’s server unless they decide to erase it, too. This is also how Google Hangouts works.

Since the messages are no longer protected unless specified, it’s fair game for law enforcement personnel to access them with the right warrants—this is common practice with message data in Gmail and Hangouts and Android’s location data. Edward Snowden, the famed whistleblower, took to Twitter to log his opinion on Allo.

For those concerned about privacy, the app allows you to switch to incognito mode, which is end-to-end encrypted. An expiration feature allows users to set a time limit, after which messages disappear from the sender and the recipient’s devices. However, smart replies won’t be available in incognito, stripping the app of it’s special features.

With Google’s competitors offering services that people have traditionally turned to Google search for—like Facebook Messenger chatbots booking flights and hotels—the company also added Google Assistant to Allo. The assistant carries out the Google Now voice assistant functions —scour for addresses, movie showtimes, restaurants, flights and hotels—from within the app. Users can also start a direct conversation with @google, to find information on news, weather, traffic, sports and more. The assistant feature is being previewed within Allo but could soon make inroads into other Google products. It’s only available in English for now and doesn’t work in incognito mode.