Ed. Note: This post by Sayan Bhattacharya is a part of the TLF Editorial Board Test 2016.
Google launched its first smartphone series called Pixel some time earlier this month. The major shift from being software producer to being both hardware and software producer was a calculated change in policy to take a direct dig at Apple’s hardware throne.
Apple stood as undisputed kings in terms of design and the meticulously designed software which ran on them, perfecting user experience with highest precision. Google on the other hand was the undisputed king of software and search engines, comprising of much higher software offerings than any other. Even the most diehard fans of iPhones spent most of their time on their devices using Google products. The changeover was thus a direct policy measure to cut through Apple’s base in hardware design but providing an alternative with Google’s exclusive product range.
On the surface, the launch seem to be all about glittery issues surrounding the inherent competition between Google and Apple, but the media, customers and the makers of our privacy law often tend to ignore the bigger picture being entangled in the mesh of technology. One of the major components of Google’s cutting edge technology over iPhones is its Artificial Intelligence which promotes active data mining. The absence and presence of privacy norms is what distinguishes the new features of Google from the existing features in Apple devices. The assumption on part of Google is that its customers are willing to give up some amount of privacy in order to make life easier and the assumption on part of iPhone is that customers value their privacy more than anything.
The latest Artificial Intelligence in Pixel allows the software to read mails, text messages, calendars. When Google’s AI magically delivers you the answer to the question you asked, it is a case of data mining. It is not against the law too, because technically on paper you have given Google certain permissions by not reading the fine print or skimming through it, which allows it to read through your chats, mails, location history and browsing and what not for it to give you some magical results. So the argument here is that it mostly not a free consent that people are providing due to lack of important information while making the same choice.
The major shift in terms of technology in the new AI that Google has developed in Pixel is in terms of its ability to actively read and understand the context of an act or a conversation. So for example if you are on either of Google Allo or Google Home and chatting about going for a dinner with your family at a selected time, you can be sure to expect a reminder about the same along with reviews about the restaurant and even a direct link to book an Uber ride. This is because the AI feature reads your conversations, figures out context and links you to your needs over the web.
“Adding to that, the very Google Allo introduced in order to challenge authority of messaging applications like WhatsApp, Snapchat and Messenger is not end to end encrypted like all of these messaging applications are until you move into incognito mode. However, the Incognito mode within the Google Allo is only an optional feature, instead of being a default setting like in secure chat apps such as Apple’s iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp. In consequence, Allo’s privacy and security got heavily criticized.”
“NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has criticised Google Allo app on Twitter, and said Google’s decision to disable end-to-end encryption was dangerous. He asked people to avoid using the app, and his tweet has been re-tweeted over 8000 times on the site.”
The problem essentially with this kind of a feature is the fact that it prioritises data mining for ease of access over consumer privacy. The very fact that now privacy of data is an option instead of the norm is what leads to questioning the ethics of data mining however easier it makes one’s life. The fact that a third party is able to store your conversations, read it by actively understanding its context and finally applying the same to aid future actions on your device is what is astounding in this regard.
In another instance if you back up your photos to Google photos, the Google Assistant is capable of recognizing what’s there in the photo using its computer vision wherein it can understand when the same was taken and who all are there in it. Thus the Google AI goes to the extent of not just mining your data but also linking the data excavated to that of other user’s data which Google has excavated through its software. The ultimate end goal is to link the entirity of data collected to create a form of network which is omnipresent but can’t be seen. The question doesn’t arise out of the same networking but out of the means of achieving the same. The data is thus being excavated without a free consent and is being linked with external third party data without prior permission.
Another huge concern surrounding this huge data storage is with government snooping through data packet inspections which exist already in network connections. A switch to Google Pixel means a switch to an almost completely internet run software which further increases chances of breach of privacy.
Google aims at making its artificial intelligence the next big thing post its position in world of search engines and software. It aims to make its customers switch from a mobile first world to an AI first world. But the underlying assumption is that the same can be done at the cost of user privacy.