Google’s new messaging app, Allo, is just a bit snoopier than the company promised it would be back in May.
The app is already viewed with suspicion by many privacy advocates, because its integration with Google’s new AI assistant (called, imaginatively, Assistant) requires messages to be sent without end-to-end encryption on by default. That means Google’s Assistant can read your messages, and provide contextual aid – but it also means Google can read them, and so too can law enforcement, national security and anyone else with a valid warrant.
But as a spoonful of sugar to help that go down, the company also announced back in May that Allo would have some of the most progressive message retention policies of any app: rather than keeping your texts forever, they would instead be stored “transiently”, ensuring that your full chat logs aren’t sitting on Google’s servers forever, and anonymously, so that even if the logs are subpoenaed, they can’t be linked back to the sender.
Now that Allo is in app stores, those features appear to be missing in action. By default, messages are stored indefinitely, and linked directly to an account.
To be clear, the defaults can be changed: both end-to-end encryption and ephemeral messages can be turned on by the user as part of the app’s Incognito mode. That mode also disables access to Google Assistant, for obvious reasons. Previously sent messages can also be deleted manually.
Google says that the ephemerality was removed from the shipped version to improve the “smart reply” feature on Allo, which learns from your previous conversations to suggest automatic replies to the latest message sent. The more data, the better the replies, and according to The Verge, “as the Allo team tested those replies, they decided the performance boost from permanently stored messages was worth giving up privacy benefits of transient storage”.
In a statement, Google said: “We’ve given users transparency and control over their data in Google Allo. And our approach is simple – your chat history is saved for you until you choose to delete it.
“You can delete single messages or entire conversations in Allo. We also provide the option to chat in Incognito mode, where messages are end-to-end encrypted and you can set a timer to automatically delete messages for your device and the person you’re chatting with’s device at a set time.”
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