By: Daisuke Wakabayashi and Brian X Chen
Google, the company that may know the most about our digital lives, is now preaching the gospel of privacy.
Speaking at an annual conference for developers Tuesday, Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, delivered a message that seemed cognizant of today’s consumer privacy concerns but out of step with the company’s history of intensive online data collection.
“We think privacy is for everyone — not just for the few,” Pichai said. “We want to do more to stay ahead of constantly evolving user expectations.”
Google introduced a set of tools spanning a range of its products to provide users with more control over their data and make it more difficult to track their online activities.
Google plans to permit users to navigate its maps, watch videos on YouTube and search for information in “incognito mode,” limiting the amount of information shared with the company. It will also allow users to delete web and app activity history automatically after three months or 18 months.
Google added incognito mode to its Chrome browser a decade ago.
The company also said it would make it easier for users to find and delete information they have shared with the company, including location data in maps. For its Android operating system, Google said a new update would simplify how to limit the sharing of location data with app providers.
Last week, Facebook pushed a similar privacy theme at a company conference. Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s chief executive, declared that “the future is private” and announced a shift in its products to more intimate communications.
Google and Facebook have become the dominant forces in online advertising, gobbling up information as their users move around their platforms and the internet at large. But their aggressive collection of user data — laid bare by several embarrassing scandals in recent years — has put the companies in the crosshairs of politicians and global regulators.
While thousands of developers and journalists filed into an outdoor amphitheatre where Pichai delivered his keynote, a plane flew overhead pulling a banner that read: “Google Control Is Not Privacy #savelocalnews.”
“I suspect they saw the writing on the wall,” said Fatemeh Khatibloo, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester. “These are meaningful changes when it comes to the user’s expectations of privacy, but I don’t think this affects their business at all. So why shouldn’t they do these things to give the impression of more privacy?”
After the keynote speech, Google separately announced it would take steps to limit the use of tracking cookies on Chrome, the world’s most popular browser with about a 60 per cent market share.
Cookies allow companies to monitor which websites people visit and what ads they have viewed or clicked on. They also are a way for a website to remember who you are so you don’t have to log in every time you visit. Cookies level the playing field for smaller companies in the digital advertising world — allowing them to collect information that helps refine ad targeting.
Even as it was addressing some of the perils of data collection, Google demonstrated how it was using information that people provide to the company to make its products more useful.
Its next-generation Assistant, powered by the company’s artificial intelligence, can learn more about you to personalize reminders and tasks. It can remember your partner’s birthday, for example, and remind you to buy a present a week beforehand. It can also help book car reservations on the web using emails and calendar information.
It can also understand better what you are doing. Google’s digital assistant will have a driving mode to help drivers play music, set map destinations or answer phone calls more easily without taking their hands off the wheel.
To make its Assistant faster and more responsive, Google unveiled a change in how the technology works on smartphones. Google said it would start processing what users say to the Assistant on the device — instead of sending it to data centres — allowing the smartphone to respond more quickly.
The company also introduced cheaper versions of its Pixel smartphone, bringing the company’s lauded camera technologies to a new audience of budget-conscious consumers. The devices, called Pixel 3A and Pixel 3A XL, start at about $400 and $480, compared to $800 and $900 for their high-end counterparts.
IDC, a research firm, said a sales decline last quarter in the United States was linked to a slowdown for high-end devices, which include iPhones, Samsung Galaxy devices and Google’s Pixels.
Though slower and lacking features like wireless charging and a wide-angle lens, the cheaper Pixel shares many of the same characteristics as Google’s premium devices. For one, they include the same rear camera, which includes a mode called Night Sight, which makes photos in low light look like they were taken in normal lighting.
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