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At Google I/O, ‘private by design’ is the company’s most vital message

Google's future depends on retaining users and their trust.

CEO Sundar Pichai wearing a purple jacket and talking on a screen

According to CEO Sundar Pichai, the company develops and maintains products focused on user security and control and a "private by design" philosophy.

Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Google I/O kicked off Tuesday as an all-virtual developer conference, the second in this format since the pandemic began, dedicated to all things Android, Chrome and the broader Google ecosystem. In years past, I/O has straddled the line between a consumer product event, a standard developer confab and a kind of philosophical presentation on the future and how Google's technology roadmap will take us there.

This year featured an even heavier focus on what Google thinks its most vital priorities are going forward, including improved privacy controls within Google products and services and the company's ever-growing investment in artificial intelligence.

  • Most important, according to CEO Sundar Pichai, is that the company develops and maintains products focused on user security and control and a "private by design" philosophy, a new and oft-repeated mantra we heard during the keynote and, in a way, a response to Apple's "privacy is a fundamental human right" slogan.
  • "All of our products are guided by three important principles: With one of the world's most advanced security infrastructures, our products are secure by default. We strictly uphold responsible data practices so every product we build is private by design. And we create easy to use privacy and security settings so you're in control," Pichai wrote in Google's post-keynote roundup.

Google's future largely hinges on its ability to keep executing on both AI and privacy. The company needs users to keep handing over data to underpin its ad business and to keep using its products to give those ads eyeballs to reach. And ever-improving AI is how Google has tried to differentiate its hardware and software products, from the Pixel phone camera to the Google Assistant platform. To improve AI, Google needs — you guessed it — more data: a steady stream of it, in fact.

Yet Google can only keep these various parts in synchronicity if it can keep users trusting the power of its privacy controls and, at a broader level, trusting the company with any of their data at all.

  • It's key that consumers think they're better off compromising with Google by handing over some data in exchange for great (and free) products, than fleeing to another platform, like Apple's more privacy-minded iOS or the ultra-convenience of Amazon's Alexa ecosystem.
  • This is an especially pressing problem for Google amid Apple's more aggressive privacy push of late, including the new App Tracking Transparency change that allows users to opt-out of mobile tracking across apps and websites.

That's why among the biggest takeaways from this year's I/O was how much more granular Google's privacy controls are becoming, in both the newly announced Android 12 and in its largest products like Google Maps and Google Photos. In fact, Jen Fitzpatrick, Google's senior vice president of core systems and experiences, said multiple times during her portion of the keynote that "Google never sells your personal information to anyone," and later in a blog post she wrote: "Every day, we focus on making sure you're in control of your data by building products that are secure by default and private by design."

A hallmark of Android 12, due out later this year, is that it will give users even more control over their mobile location data, smartphone camera and on-device microphone.

  • Green lights will flip on any time an app is utilizing the camera or mic, and users can now shut off both on an app-by-app basis or for the entire phone at a system level.
  • There's a new privacy dashboard, too, that shows how many times those three various data streams have been accessed in the last 24 hours.

As for location data, Android 12 users will be able to set "approximate" or "precise" locations, which Google says will allow people to use services like a weather app that ask for a location but don't necessarily require anyone to hand over data that could identify, say, an exact home address. Google Maps will also send a reminder when location history is turned on with the option to toggle it off, while Google Search on mobile will introduce the option to delete the last 15 minutes of activity and more easily toggle off the app's search history function.

There's a new privacy sandbox for machine learning development on Android, called the Private Compute Core, that will store sensitive AI-related data in its own partition, similar to how passwords and biometric data are stored.

  • The data in question, like audio and language processing data collected by the Google Assistant for Smart Reply and performing translation, can still be accessed by system-level Google apps, but it's now kept away from parts of the phone where it could be more easily accessed by a malicious third party.
  • Google Photos is also getting a Locked Folder feature for securing sensitive photos from showing up in the main camera roll and from being incorporated into Google's automatic photo album creation feature and other algorithmic tools. It's coming first to Pixel devices, and then to more Android handsets later this year.

That many of these new features are coming to Pixel devices and the Android platform first and in some cases exclusively is another key message Google wants to send. Google wants to incentivize people to stay in its ecosystem, just as Apple does with certain hardware exclusive to the iPhone. Though for Google, it's about granting access to better and more powerful AI and privacy features.

The company understands that it presents a kind of Faustian bargain in which consumers put up with the ads and the data collection and the tracking in exchange for world-class, free products and services. But if Google is to be believed when it says it has a "private by design" mindset and that it is in fact committed to protecting its users, perhaps that's a deal worth taking.

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