The problem is that this type of “machine learning” requires users’ messages and other data to be routed through corporate servers so that they can be analysed and an appropriate response sent, as well as informing future interactions.
But for strong encryption to work effectively, only a message’s sender and recipient can have the ability to decode the message. If Google, Facebook or some other company has the ability to process the messages, it’s hard to guarantee that only the two people texting are the only two reading.
Google employees said they had to work through a similar calculus before they unveiled Allo at their May developer conference. Speaking on stage at an outdoor amphitheater, executives showed how the messaging app would rely on a virtual assistant to add smarts to users’ conversations.
“It learns over time to make conversations easier,” said Mario Queiroz, vice-president of product at Google, who added that machine learning would make chats “more expressive, more productive”.
Later on the company talked about Allo’s incognito mode, which would feel end-to-end encryption based on technology also used by Facebook’s WhatsApp service.
Google later confirmed to the Guardian that it made the extra privacy an opt-in feature because many of Allo’s smarts would no longer would work if users turn on incognito mode, which prevents certain types of data from passing through Google’s servers.
With both Google and Facebook, consumers will have the option to turn on the extra privacy mode for each message.
Facebook would neither confirm nor deny its plans for adding more encryption to Messenger. “We don’t comment on rumor or speculation,” a Facebook spokesman said.
Tradeoffs between security and usability aren’t new. You can put your valuables in a safe or a desk drawer. Your computer password can be “123456” or “Y0Uwon*[email protected]$$W0RD!”. And you can use the government email system or set up your own server.
But for many consumers, such tradeoffs with modern technology often seem abstract. If nothing else, Google’s and Facebook’s new messaging products will force consumers to see the tradeoffs each time they want to send a text message. Engineers at the two companies and others predict that most consumers would rather have a smarter messaging app than a more private one.
But there are of course people such as Kenneth White, a security researcher and co-director of the Open Crypto Audit Project, which tests the security of encryption software. Speaking of his messaging inbox he said, “an all-knowing cloud AI agent has no more business there than listening to my voice calls”.
“I just object to the opt-in default for what could be millions of users as they discuss politics, their love life, health concerns, and other topics meant to be private,” he said.