Allo will, however, come with an “incognito mode” that enables end-to-end encryption and makes message history disappear after a while, à la Snapchat. That mode can be enabled in individual conversations with one tap, but will disable Allo’s artificial-intelligence features.
Releasing a new messaging platform without default end-to-end encryption rubs against a recently established norm. WhatsApp, Facebook’s incredibly popular chat app, turned on the feature for all billion of its users last month, to great fanfare from the tech community. Apple’s iMessages have the feature, too, although users who back up their conversations to iCloud can’t take advantage of it. (Google’s current chat offering, Hangouts, isn’t end-to-end encrypted, either, so Allo wouldn’t really be a step backwards for security as much as it’s missing a clear step forwards.)
It’s clear the company was thinking about security in developing Allo, but it appears that the convenience that the search assistant would bring—and perhaps the commercial imperative of gathering more information from more places about its users—won out. Thai Duong, a Google security engineer, wrote a blog post last week about Allo’s “incognito mode,” which he helped design. He discussed the importance of end-to-end encryption, and said he wished it was a default feature. But later, a paragraph of that post, where he made his preference for default end-to-end encryption clear and promised to push for a more permanent incognito mode, disappeared. According to an update he placed at the top of the post, he deleted the section because “it's not cool to publicly discuss or to speculate the intent or future plans for the features of my employer’s products, even if it’s just my personal opinion.” (Duo, a companion to Allo for two-way video conversations, is completely end-to-end encrypted.)
Allo’s always-listening assistant is as close as we’ve gotten yet to our vision of the quiet computer-butler who jumps in only when needed. Instead of toggling back and forth between a conversation with another human and a dialogue with a digital helper, that helper can follow you to your actual conversations.
But for now, assistants aren’t quite smart enough to do all the necessary thinking on their own. They need to rely on powerful servers to do their heavy lifting, communicating back and forth every time they try to answer a simple question—and that step is where the privacy issues crop up.
That likely won’t always be the case. As handheld devices are stuffed with more and more powerful processors, the prospect of an artificial-intelligence assistant that lives entirely on your phone is coming within reach. Engineers at MIT announced a chip developed expressly for artificial intelligence earlier this year that would enable A.I. to live entirely on your phone.