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Security, Privacy Loom Large Over Google I/O

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  May 8th, 2019  By Anne Dennon

Google’s annual developer conference unveiled new devices (cheaper Google phones are here — Pixel 3A and 3A XL) and bragged about the past year’s innovations (automatic email responses have been great, thanks!), but the constant refrain was privacy. Even as the sophisticated, customizable possibilities of the newest suite of Google gear derive their utility from harvesting more and more data, the tech company is also responding to public backlash about privacy. Take the souped-up smart screen, the Google Nest Hub Max.

The Google Nest Hub Max is the bigger, better version of the Google Nest Hub, the company’s existing smart speaker with a 7-inch display. Slated for release in late summer, the Hub Max, with a 10-inch screen and a camera, rings in at $229. Meanwhile, the price of the OG hub has dropped to $129.

The new hub has the kind of face- and voice-recognition capabilities that raise consumer concerns with Big Tech’s data collection. According to new research from Consumers International and the Internet Society, 63% of people surveyed find smart home tech “creepy.” That percentage stays about the same amongst people who have already brought automation devices into their homes.

But Google wants to give with both hands: Yes, you can permit the hub to memorize your face and voice, enabling personalized responses, reminders, and entertainment suggestions. But you can also opt out. Yes, the screen can follow your face as you move around the room during a video call, and can pause the music with a gesture, but you can also flip a physical on/off switch on the back of the device — cutting all connectivity to mic and video.

While tech design grows increasingly smooth and buttonless — and beyond human control — the presence of this physical off-switch was perhaps the most consumer-empowering innovation introduced at Google I/O. You can pull the plug. It’s the kind of manual control that vanished with the advent of the touchscreen.

An excitingly tactile first, but Google has been quietly introducing other security measures, as pointed out by the Washington Post. Last year, Google changed defaults to not record your “OK, Google” commands. You’re also able to edit and delete the personal information Google has stored, even setting up an auto-delete for every 3 months, every 8 months, and so forth. While security was a theme at this year’s I/O, some of the security measures highlighted have been available for years, like the privacy and security settings in Google Account, Maps, and Assistant.

Still, as Google CEO Sundar Pichai pointed out in a New York Times op-ed, “a small subset of data” must continue in order to fuel targeted ads. While users crave data control and the possibility of anonymity, advertising keeps Google free.

Equipping consumers to ensure their own privacy has been a refrain for tech companies all year. At this year’s CES, LG and Samsung repeatedly noted that new AI capabilities would be stored locally rather than in the cloud. Google, too, promised data won’t leave their new devices, be it phone or hub. Time — and early-adopter beta tests — will tell how airtight the execution is, but the sentiment and the security is a step in the right direction.

Featured image courtesy Google keynote livestream, May 2019

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