Google’s AI driven universe brings up privacy concerns but we shouldn’t be hypocritical

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Google has laid down the gauntlet. It has bet big on a future where artificial intelligence (AI) will be the next big thing in tech. It believes AI to be its next big product after search. “We’re moving from a mobile first world to an AI first world,” said Google CEO Sundar Pichai at its big hardware event in San Francisco on Tuesday. And that’s why it has weaved its AI chops into each and every one of its products. This also brings forth some pertinent privacy concerns for many people who feel that Google is mining tons of data and knows everything about them.

In all honesty people aren’t wrong. When Google’s AI magically delivers you the answer to the question you asked, it is a case of data mining. You give 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. Mostly things aren’t happening without consent.

So for instance when on the current Google Now, if you get a notification to leave for the airport in next 15 minutes out of the blue, it is because Google knows what time your flight is by scanning through your mail. It knows which airport you need to reach and it knows where you are by scanning for your location. This way using the real time traffic data on Google Maps Google Now is able to tell you when to leave on its own.

The Google Assistant which has been weaved into the new Pixel phones, Google Home and the Allo chat app goes a step further. The Google Assistant sits inside your chat and is omnipresent across your phone and can understand the context of a conversation or an action. So if in a chat you ask to go to dinner at 8 and there’s a suggestion, it will give directions, it will provide you information about the restaurant and even the commute distance and time. You can even make a reservation and book an Uber for the same.

You can ask the Assistant to control your Chromecast and also take notes. It will even give you a briefing of what’s to be done in the day.

On the Pixel and Home speaker, the Assistant will also know what apps you like to use, whom you talk to often and much more. If you back up your photos to Google photos, the Assistant can recognise what’s there in the photo using computer vision, it can understand when it was taken and who all are there in it.

Google has even introduced a help assistant on the Pixel phone which will allow users access to a 24×7 help desk for troubleshooting. As a part of this, on the phone there’s a screen sharing feature too. And all this has set the cat amongst the pigeons. Privacy advocates are up in arms calling Google the big brother we should be worried about.

My take on the situation is a pragmatic one. There’s no question Google can read what you’re doing when you grant it access. If you’re uncomfortable with all this, then simply disable these features or not use some of these products. But if you’re enjoying these services, regularly depend on them and then you’re complaining then you’re being hypocritical. Yes, everything is hidden in the fine print, but that’s Google’s prerogative. It gives you choice on many of these services.

On Chrome you can use the incognito mode to ensure you’re not tracked. Similarly, if you’re uncomfortable with the Assistant in Allo, you can again go into the Incognito mode and you can even get access to self-destructing messages. I’ve not tried the Pixel phone or the Home speaker, but if you’re so wary about them then don’t buy them. Perhaps, you could use Apple’s iPhone.

If you’re a long time Gmail user and complain that Google reads your mails and scans your search history and delivers targeted advertising, then get over it because it is free and it is fast and reliable. More than that, in the late 90’s we were in a world where there was paucity of data and services like Hotmail and Yahoo didn’t offer more than a couple of megabytes of data on mails. It was Gmail that turned that on its head.

The point I am trying to make is that if you’ve become slave to a free service for years and now you’re cribbing that it is exploiting you isn’t fair. They also have to make money at the end of the day. Moreover, Google is not the only company betting big on AI which involves a lot of data mining. Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon and even Apple are doing the same. Most people don’t talk about these other tech giants mostly because Google’s results are more startling as its technology is perceived to be superior. Perhaps it is, but we don’t know for sure yet.

Apple takes this holy approach where it cites differential privacy as a weapon against data mining, but recently at the Google for India event Google’s search guru John Giannandrea also revealed that Google had been doing the same in varied ways but has not advertised it.

Facebook keeps changing its stance on privacy and the fact it knows so much personal information about you is probably scarier than what Google knows about you. A couple of months ago, it tried to trick Indians into signing a petition so that TRAI would rule favourably for free basics which was eventually deemed illegal.

Google may not have its hands squeaky clean the way it may want the world to see it with its ‘Don’t be evil’ tag line, but it sure isn’t the worst. It has 7 products which have more than a billion users. These are fabulous products which are offered for free and most of us are dependent on them. If you think it is violating your privacy stop using them. Simple. If you think they enrich your life, then clearly the trade-off is worth it.

It is all about being pragmatic not hypocritical.

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Google’s AI driven universe brings up privacy concerns but we shouldn’t be hypocritical