Google seems to be a glutton for punishment and that’s why, despite countless failed attempts in this field, it announced a brand new messaging app, called Allo. News of the app was broken on stage at the company’s I/O conference, where the speakers demoed the app’s capabilities.
While Allo doesn’t seem to offer much that’s different from its competitors, it does have one sticking point: Google’s AI that’s built into the app analyzes your messages to help you in some situations. You can chat with the AI to have it search for things, or the AI can simply suggest automatic messages for some questions, like “I’ll be late” or “Sounds good”.
But the app quickly gained notoriety for another, less favorable reason: privacy and security. Unlike all of its competitors, including Slack, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and many others, Allo doesn’t offer encrypted messages by default. There’s an “incognito mode” available that uses end-to-end encryption but that needs to be turned on manually for each individual chat.
In a world where most companies are moving to make their products more secure, and their users’ data more private, not using end-to-end encryption by default looks like a step backwards. Indeed, folks like Edward Snowden quickly came out against the app and warned users about its downsides:
But hope is not completely lost, as even some voices inside Google are pushing for encryption to be turned on more or less by default. One such voice is Thai Duong, an engineer who co-leads Google’s product security team, who claimed on his blog that he pushed for end-to-end encryption inside Allo. He also mentioned that he would continue to push for the feature, and even described what he views as a good compromise for users that might be coming in a future version. The paragraphs mentioning this were quickly deleted afterwards, but not before TechCrunch saved them:
The burning question now is: if incognito mode with end-to-end encryption and disappearing messages is so useful, why isn’t it the default in Allo?
I wish it’s the default (because it’s my feature haha :), but even if it is not default all is not lost. I can’t promise anything now, but I’m pushing for a setting where users can opt out of cleartext messaging. Basically with one touch you can tell Allo that you want to “Always chat in incognito mode going forward,” and from that moment on all your messages will be end-to-end encrypted and auto-deleted. You can still interact with the AI, but only if you specifically invoke it, so you don’t have to give up everything for your privacy gain. This is the best of both worlds, until someone figures out how to do homomorphic machine learning.
In either case, this conversation might be a moot point if Allo fails to gain traction. That being said, pushing for better security and privacy in products is always appreciated, so here’s hoping Google learns this lesson and applies it in the future.