Allo – The Conflicting Sides of Google’s Newest App

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At this year’s Google I/O 2016, developers announced an array of new products, including an app called Allo (pronounced as Aloe).

Google's new messaging app, Allo

Google’s new messaging app, Allo

According to techcrunch, the smart messaging app is supercharged with machine learning and Google’s new Google Assistant service (its answer to Amazon’s Alexa).

The Next Big Google Platform?

The app is expected (by some) to be a big hit with Android users. AndroidPit reported that at its core, there is nothing revolutionary in Allo. The bells and whistles, however, are the interesting features. “At a basic level, there’s nothing groundbreaking going on with Allo. It’s a messaging app. But where it gets interesting is the addition of a chatbot, which you can summon with a message to @Google from within a one-to-one or group chat. Up pops the bot and you can begin to ask questions.” Another feature of note is Allo’s Smart Reply. Smart reply “will suggest response[s] to you for conversations so that you don’t need to type anything…the app will ‘learn’ how you reply to things to make more relevant suggestions to you,” according to techcrunch.

Allo is Google’s response to platforms like Facebook Messenger and Telegram. If competitor platforms answer questions posed by users within, users would be less inclined to open a Google search. Allo will be available via Android phones this summer. New products and gadgets can be exciting to learn; however, unforeseen risks follow every technological advancement.

 Unforeseen Risks – They’re Everywhere

Firestorm Co-Founder and CEO, Harry Rhulen, continually reiterates, “the rate of change is one of the biggest exposures the world faces today.” Technology changes on the daily, therefore new risks are exposed every day, too. This app is no different. Although beneficial in ways, Allo does pose risks. Even lightening rod Edward Snowden jumped in to blast Google, Google Security Expert Thai Duong and the app itself. In a tweet, Snowden railed against Allo saying: “Google’s decision to disable end-to-end encryption by default in its new Allo chat app is dangerous, and makes it unsafe. Avoid it for now.” The tweet followed a blog reviewing Allo published by Duong.

You may also be interested in: Rate of Change – The Unforeseen Risk

Not helping Google’s case was the fact that Duong deleted a paragraph of the original blog post containing information about Allo’s default setting disabling the end-to-end encryption. The deleted paragraph read: “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?” Duong wrote in response to the deleted section: “I erased a paragraph from this post because it’s not cool to publicly discuss or to speculate the intent or future plans for the features of my employer’s products, even if it’s just my personal opinion.”

So, What’s the Issue?

The two main features of the app – the machine-learning function (that enables the smart reply) and the end-to-end encryption – are mutually conflicting. Fortune Magazine questioned the issue stating:allo tweet

“End-to-end encryption makes it impossible for anyone but the correspondents in a conversation to read what’s being said. That should block Google’s systems from being able to watch and learn in order to suggest responses, so it is presumably why Allo’s main security feature is relegated to a privacy mode rather than being on by default…

That mode may have garnered some positive headlines, but the privacy community is fuming about Google’s choice here, because the first rule of app settings is that people tend to stick to the defaults. If you’re offering strong privacy protection for communications—and there’s no good reason not to do so for every online conversation—then turning it off by default is a bad way to go about things.”

Not only do users stick with default settings, they tend to easily trust reputable sources, i.e. Google.

When working with a trusted source, users assume someone is looking out for their best interest – that’s not always the case,” said Harry Rhulen, Firestorm CEO and Co-Founder. Mr Rhulen continued, “Default settings can be very dangerous – especially when users do not have the technological skills to adjust settings properly. Any time a user is utilizing a device where they lose the encryption capability, they’re making a mistake. If you give data to the wrong people, it’s a domino effect. A little shared data will increasingly lead to more information distributed.”

If default settings are changed and end-to-end encryption is turned on, how will Google’s technology bot listen and learn? How will smart reply work? Conversely, if privacy settings are left alone to accommodate the smart reply, it negates the security of the end-to-end encryption.

With every new technology, questions arise and issues surface. It will be interesting to see how Google combats the evident issue of Allo. We will find out officially this summer, when the app is released to the general public.


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