Google goes for the wow at I/O, but what about privacy?

The search giant was mostly mum about privacy on the I/O main stage, but some Googlers talked data collection on the sidelines.

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
4 min read
Google CEO Sundar Pichai on stage at Google I/O 2018

Google CEO Sundar Pichai made a number of announcements at the I/O developer conference, but didn't talk about privacy.

James Martin/CNET

Google invited thousands of software developers and reporters to its I/O developer fest at Shoreline Amphitheater, right in its backyard in Silicon Valley. It pitched its biggest projects around artificial intelligence, virtual reality and Android, the company's mobile operating system.

But while there were some jaw-dropping announcements -- a new AI tech called Duplex that works with Google's virtual Assistant is worth listening to -- what we didn't get was a whole lot of insight into how the world's biggest search company is thinking about its approach to privacy and data collection. ZDNet, CNET's sister site, points out that there was no mention of privacy, and only one mention of security during the entire two-hour keynote on Tuesday, led by CEO Sundar Pichai. It came during the section on Android, teasing a security session on Thursday.

The scene at I/O stands in stark contrast to F8, Facebook's developer conference, held just down the road last week in San Jose, California. During his keynote, CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent half an hour apologizing for Facebook's Cambridge Analytica debacle. The scandal, which began in March, left Facebook exposed to questions about data collection and privacy after the UK-based consultancy inappropriately accessed data on up to 87 million Facebook users without their permission.

But while Facebook is taking the brunt of the blame in discussions over user privacy, Google is in a similar boat when it comes to data collection. 

Google makes a lot of money from what it knows about you. It knows your hobbies from your search history. It knows your favorite restaurants and the routes you travel from Google Maps . It knows who you email thanks to Gmail and what your favorite Steph Curry highlights are from that YouTube video you can't stop watching. Google uses that kind of information to let marketers target you with specific (and lucrative) ads. It made $95.4 billion in ad sales last year.

Watch this: Google Duplex worries me

"We tell Facebook all about ourselves, but Google knows the real us," says Brian Solis, an analyst at the Altimeter Group. "That's why it's so incredible -- and also so dangerous at the same time."

He says glossing over privacy issues was probably intentional. "There was such a significant wow factor [in the announcements] that they felt it could distract" from other issues.  

Those privacy concerns

But some Googlers did address security and privacy issues on the sidelines at I/O and in other conversations.

The company hopes its Google Assistant will be the next evolution of search, as people ask questions both by voice and by typing on their phones . One new technology called Duplex, which will be released to a limited number of users this summer, uses AI to let the Assistant, a rival to Amazon's Alexa and Apple's Siri , make phone calls on your behalf to schedule appointments and book reservations. The virtual assistant sounds impressively human, using verbal tics like "uh" and "um" and pausing before answering questions. When Pichai unveiled it during the keynote, the demo left the 7,000 attendees in the audience stunned. (You can listen to it here.)

But that evolution in search also means Google may collect even more intimate information about you. 

"Our principles here have always been to give users control over that information," Nick Fox, who heads up product design for the Assistant, told me last week just ahead of I/O. "The last few weeks have underlined that this is incredibly important. But we've always known it's important. It's healthy for us to get that reinforcement."

Google also announced it's opening up Google Photos to developers for the first time. Ben Greenwood, product manager for the photo storage and sharing service, said the company decided it's important for Photos to restrict the kind of info developers can access.

Google Photos "is entrusted with these really precious memories," Greenwood said, adding that the service never shares data with developers without explicit user consent. It also makes developer partners go through verifications and periodic checks.

And when it comes to Android, Vice President of Engineering David Burke said he's "very conscious" of privacy concerns. He mentioned the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, a European rule that gives people more control over their personal data. It goes into effect May 25.

"A lot of what GDPR brings to the table we've already been doing, and I think that it's great that there's a standard," Burke said. "That's important."

CNET's Jessica Dolcourt contributed to this report.

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