Google saves Allo conversations, a win for machine learning but a loss for privacy

Google stores Allo conversations persistently in its servers, after having previously announced that the chats will only be accessible by the end users.


Google has been teasing Allo, an instant messaging platform since their I/O conference for developers earlier this year. Allo launched earlier today, and is available on the Play store as of now. The disruptive new addition is an intelligent agent called Google Assistant. Addressing the Assistant through the chat in the Allo app, by sending a message to @google allows for richer and faster conversations.

As against chatbots in other messaging platforms such as Telegram or Messenger, everyone in the chatbox can see the results of a Google Assistant query. This makes planning trips or deciding a movie to watch easier. Anyone in the group can click through and select from a range of results, instead of the agent delivering a range of results, out of which one is picked to be put into the chat. These search results, and the constant interaction with Google Assistant is meant to improve the experience of using Google. Google Assistant is soon going to be available in more products, and in languages other than English.

However, the machine learning being used to improve Google Assistant means that the database of conversations between users are encrypted and saved in Google servers. This is used by the neural networks at Google to improve the experience, deliver better results, and display more targeted ads. The fact that these conversations are saved in Google servers is a departure from prior plans, announced at I/O, that Google would not be persistently saving these conversations.

According to a report in the Verge, this decision was taken by Google engineers after balancing the advantages of machine learning against the disadvantages of reduced privacy. For users, this means that Google will be able to comply with requests of interception of the data by official Government agencies. There is an incognito mode, where the messages are not persistently stored on Google servers. Users can also manually delete chats to remove them from Google's database.

For those concerned about security and privacy, Google's Allo has a less private implementation than other messaging services. For example, recently, WhatsApp told the Delhi High Court, that they do not have access to user data, as the conversations have end to end encryption enabled, and are not stored on WhatsApp servers.

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