Google hopes Pixel 3 and new hardware distract you from its privacy issues

The search giant's reputation for security has taken a beating.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
5 min read
Google Hardware Chief Rick Osterloh announced new devices on Tuesday.

Google Hardware Chief Rick Osterloh announced new devices on Tuesday.

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When Google pushes a device like its new Pixel 3 phone, it's not really about the phone. It's about all the ways the hunk of metal and glass can get you to use Google's software -- and, as a result, help the company find out more information about you.

But what if your faith in Google's ability to protect your data is shaken?

That question formed the undercurrent to a busy Tuesday event at which the internet search giant unveiled new consumer gadgets, including updated Pixel phones, a smart display called the Home Hub, and a tablet, the Pixel Slate, with a detachable keyboard. The event came just a day after the revelation that Google had put the data of 500,000 people at risk because of a bug in a developer tool found in its Google+ social network.

Google said it discovered and fixed the bug in March but decided not to disclose the vulnerability because the flaw didn't meet the company's internal "thresholds" for informing the public.

That news, disclosed by a report in The Wall Street Journal, raises new questions about Google's commitment to protecting the personal information of its billions of users. Already there'd been an uptick of criticism over the company's data collection practices and, thanks to Facebook, increasing consumer scrutiny over how customer information is being used.

It's just the latest test of our trust in Google. In July, the Journal reported that employees at the companies behind some third-party Gmail apps could read your inbox if you integrated those apps with your Gmail account. A month later, the Associated Press reported that Google was still tracking users even if they'd turned off a setting called Location History.

In the case of Google+, the search giant said it found no evidence any data was abused, but as a result of the incident it decided to shut down the social network for good.

What Google's gadgets get you

On Tuesday, Google didn't address those privacy concerns directly, but it did give a nod toward security. "We're committed to the security of our users," Rick Osterloh, Google's hardware chief, said during the event in New York City. "We need to offer simple, powerful ways to safeguard your devices."

Osterloh mentioned products like Google Play Protect for Android devices and Titan, a security key Google released in August that's been integrated into the company's mobile hardware.

"We certainly take user trust seriously," Brian Rokowski, a vice president of engineering for Pixel phones, said in an interview. "Our whole brand is built on trust."

Still, on stage Google tried to turn the attention to the latest bells and whistles, and not privacy woes. 

The company announced new features that take better group selfies, and a screening feature for the Pixel 3 that lets you avoid calls from telemarketers. It also announced a revamped version of the Google Home app and a wireless charging device for the Pixel.

Google Home Hub takes on the Amazon Echo Show

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Google's Facebook problem

Whatever the specifics of the hardware, data is the lifeblood of Silicon Valley. Google wants to sell you phones and smart speakers because it knows people aren't searching for things on Google.com from their desktop computers as much anymore. They're telling their Google Home devices to play curated playlists, or using maps on their smartphones to navigate to their favorite restaurants.

The more Google knows about you and your interests, the more valuable its ads become to marketers who pay the company to target potential buyers based on their likes, dislikes, age, interests and even location. Alphabet, Google's parent company, makes about 90 percent of its $100 billion in annual sales from advertising.

But while the software giants of Silicon Valley have mined data for years, hardware has also become a key part of their business. Amazon first unveiled its Alexa assistant and Echo smart speaker in 2014. Last month, it unveiled a deluge of new products, including a wall clock, subwoofer and microwave. Facebook joined the fray on Monday, announcing its long-rumored video chat device, called Portal.

In a sense, Facebook's and Google's problems are similar but flipped.

Facebook has spent the last two years reckoning with a crisis of user trust. The social network is still reeling from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which the UK-based digital consultancy co-opted the personal data of roughly 87 million people without their permission. And two weeks ago, Facebook disclosed a massive hack that affected 50 million people. In the face of all that, the social network still decided that now is a good time to sell hardware for your living room.

Google has sold hardware for years, and it got really serious about the market three years ago. In 2016, the company tapped Osterloh, a former Motorola executive, to lead a dedicated team focused on creating consumer devices. Last year, Google paid $1 billion to bulk up its hardware engineering ranks through a deal with Chinese manufacturer HTC.

But now, after getting a relatively free pass as Facebook has endured a barrage of scandals, Google has been getting hammered for its treatment of data.

Google knows privacy in the home can be an especially touchy subject. The company's new Home Hub doesn't have a camera, unlike Facebook's Portal.  

"The camera is fairly contentious -- for good reason," Rishi Chandra, head of Google's Home products, said in an interview. "Not everyone is comfortable putting a camera in every room in their house. We wanted to make sure we had a product we felt could deliver a ton of value without a camera."  

Watch this: The Google Home Hub is a cute, little home control center

From Nexus to 'Made by Google'

Unlike Facebook, Google has built up years of credibility with its hardware. The cornerstone was the Nexus program, a beloved but niche line of phones that ran "stock" Android -- a bare-bones version of Google's mobile operating system without the flourishes or extra apps that carriers and manufacturers usually add to the software. Each year, Google worked with a different hardware partner, including LG, Huawei and HTC, to put out the phones.

The goal wasn't necessarily to become a market leader or make money. It was to be a showcase for Google software or to demonstrate to other hardware makers what their devices could look like.

Three years ago, the company shifted its strategy to focus on its own "Made by Google" line. In 2016, Google unveiled its first Pixel Phone and Google Home smart speaker. Now the suite of products includes everything from virtual reality headsets to video and audio streaming devices.

Watch this: Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL's cameras aim to raise the bar again

Google's pitch is that its hardware products can tap into its 20-year history as a search company and all of the advancements it's made in computing.

"The big breakthroughs we're going to see are not in hardware alone," Osterloh said. "They come at the intersection of artificial intelligence, software and hardware."

Scenes from Google's Pixel 3 event

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First published Oct. 2 at 1:53 p.m. PT.
Updated Oct. 9 at 9:22 a.m. PT: Added details about Google's new devices from the company's Tuesday event in New York, along with the Google+ news from Monday and more context about privacy issues; Oct. 10 at 5:21 a.m. PT: Added comments from Google executives.

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