Google Allo, privacy, are you there?
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Google Allo, privacy, are you there?

Google keeps your messages forever. By leaving it up to you to delete your messages, Google says its AI-driven Allo chat app can do a better job. But your privacy is a trade-off.

Google's Allo offers users messaging app with Google Assistant built in, offering automatically generated responses called Smart Replies and other computer-generated suggestions for your everyday life.

To make those features as useful as possible, Google made a trade-off with your privacy, the company confirmed Wednesday. Instead of keeping your messages on company servers for a short period of time, the company will keep them indefinitely, or at least until you manually delete them.

That, Google acknowledged Wednesday, is a change from what the company told some reporters before its annual developer conference, I/O, in May. While the company initially considered keeping messages in a "transient" fashion, testing of Allo revealed that its Smart Reply technology worked better if it had a longer history of user messages to draw from.

The change sets Allo apart from other messaging apps that have built in privacy settings by default rather than leaving it up to the user to make sure messages don't hang around on company servers. It also means Allo is less likely to cause Google any grief with governments around the world that have struck back at companies that don't keep copies of their users' messages.

In a statement, Google framed its decision as one that empowers users.

"We've given users transparency and control over their data in Google Allo. 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," a Google spokesperson said.

What's more, Allo offers Incognito Mode, which provides end-to-end encryption, meaning they remain scrambled up and unreadable when they pass through company servers.


But all this user choice isn't necessarily a good thing, said Eva Galperin, a global policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for online privacy. In apps that let users switch between private and less-private modes, users either choose the wrong mode or mistakenly believe the whole app is safe.

"When people have those kinds of choices, it's too easy to mess up," she said.

Other messaging services, such as WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, and Apple's iMessage, have taken a different approach. It's one that doesn't leave it up to users to delete messages or choose an encrypted setting. Instead, users' messages are encrypted end to end by default settings.

Google wasn't trying to offer a messaging service with default end-to-end encryption, because it needs to read messages for its Smart Reply technology to work. If they had kept the messages for as short a time as possible, it would have been a concession to privacy in its new, artificial intelligence-based app.

According to Google, that compromise detracted too much from the Smart Reply feature.

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