Google backs off on previously announced Allo privacy feature

When Allo was announced at Google’s I/O conference earlier this year
the messaging app was presented as a step forward for privacy. Alongside
the end-to-end-encrypted Incognito Mode, the Allo team talked about bold
new message retention practices, storing messages only transiently rather
than indefinitely.

But with the release of the app today, Google is backing off on some of
those features.

The version of Allo rolling out today
will store all non-incognito messages by default — a clear change from Google’s
earlier statements
that the app would only store messages transiently and in non-identifiable
form. The records will now persist until the user actively deletes them,
giving Google default access to a full history of conversations in the app.
Users can also avoid the logging by using Allo’s Incognito Mode, which is
still fully end-to-end encrypted and unchanged from the initial

A change to improve the Allo assistant

Like Hangouts and Gmail, Allo messages will still be encrypted between the
device and Google servers, and stored on servers using encryption that
leaves the messages accessible to Google’s algorithms.

According to Google, the change was made to improve Allo's smart reply
feature, which generates suggested responses to a given conversation. Like
most machine learning systems, the smart replies work better with more
data. As the Allo team tested those replies, they decided the performance
boost from permanently stored messages was worth giving up privacy benefits
of transient storage.

The decision will also have significant consequences for law enforcement
access to Allo messages. By default, Allo messages will now be accessible
to lawful requests, similar to message data in Gmail and Hangouts and location
data collected by Android
In the past, Google legal officers have stated that subpoenas are not
sufficient to obtain that information
stating "we believe a warrant is required by the Fourth Amendment to the
U.S. Constitution" for access to private information in a Google account.

The messages might not be there if the user had previously deleted them, or
if the conversations took place in Incognito Mode — but in most cases, they
will be. That leaves Google with much less danger of the kind of legal
showdown Apple faced in San Bernardino
and WhatsApp currently faces in Brazil

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