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Google Now takes a bite out of your privacy

By Marc Schenker Posted Feb. 03, 2015 Reading time: 4 minutes

Google has always been the recipient of criticism that it wants to know more about its users than is acceptable or in good taste. Now, expect that criticism to get a bit worse as the company rolls out the newest capability for Google Now, its intelligent personal assistant.

You can access Google Now from both iOS and Android through the Google Search mobile app, and it’s also available on Google Chrome on your PC. The personal assistant has a “natural language” interface that allows people to ask it questions and get so-called intelligent answers in return. Users are also able to get information from Google Now based on their search habits, which is what’s led some to call it “mind-reading” software.

 

Big announcement

A couple of days ago, the company made an announcement on its official Google Search blog that has some privacy activists concerned. It turns out that the way this platform can interact with its users is downright invasive to say the least.

The update detailed an average day scenario of how the platform can deliver information to users. On any day, you might get:

  • News update cards from a site like The Guardian (while your eyes are still groggy from sleep because you’ve just woken up)
  • Music playlist recommendations through Pandora (as you’re on your way to work in the morning, of course)
  • Reminders to start learning that second language you’ve been putting off, courtesy of Duolingo (when you’re enjoying some quiet time to yourself)
  • Card updates from a service like Instacart that tell you to pick up groceries you always purchase (as you’re relaxing and watching TV, perhaps)
  • Now cards sent from Airbnb about any travel dates and locations you’ve considered (provided you previously researched them on the Airbnb app, that is)
  • Card reminders from Lyft to order a ride when you land at the airport (assuming you went on your trip)

If you’re wondering why the names of various companies and their apps were specifically mentioned by Google in their announcement, it’s because the Internet giant has struck a deal with more than 30 developers to deliver these card updates on Google Now. As this platform gets more popular, which the company expects, we expect more developers to be added to this “living” list.

 

Privacy concerns

It’s easy to see why privacy activists are protesting this latest announcement by Google — the “mind-reading” feature of Google Now literally means that you have a virtual butler at the tip of your smartphone. While some may find that appealing, the concerns surround how much personal information you have to give up to allow Google to pry into your life like this and then provide you with all sorts of relevant-but-pushy information.

Google is no stranger to controversy regarding the release of personal information of its customers. In years past, the company has acknowledged and released select details of surveillance requests on its customers, initiated by the Obama administration as part of national security efforts in the war on terror. This recent announcement will only give those who are against the company’s preoccupation with data collection more fodder.

Still, no one should be surprised that this is the next step for the information-collection giant that is Google. The company has built its business on making a huge profit by selling the information of its users to many different advertisers. And now, it’s attempting to make more money by trying to make your life easier than ever (you may not even need to think, soon) by combining a host of apps in a virtual assistant. The question is, how many people will go for this feature now that it’s available?

 

Now cards preview

Take a look at how these Now cards, as the company’s calling them, will look on your Android phone. Sure, the design is clean, and the interface seems easy to use and very straightforward (we’ve come to expect that from Google) but it seems like overkill and a tech overload when you really analyze what you’re looking at.

google_cards

The quantity and the types of card updates you can receive are almost ridiculous because they seem so overly complete and thorough. And that has the potential to make it somewhat creepy.

Want to get some stock tip information, so you can play the market again? No sweat—The Economic Times app has you covered with some of the latest recommendations for hot stocks out there.

Or how about the housing market? Are you interested in a new home right now? After all, the housing market has already corrected itself from the meltdown it experienced several years ago, right? Well, not to worry, Google Now will put you in touch with housing cards that’ll show you the newest real estate offers in your area!

Want to wed an Indian woman? If that’s your preference, then Now cards from Shaadi will show you the most eligible candidates out there.

You know what? Maybe finances and matchmaking aren’t your cup of tea. That’s more than cool. You want to unwind instead. For that, Google Now has TV listings in card updates right on your smartphone. Simply tap the mic to allow the virtual assistant to actually listen to your TV. The Bachelor, anyone?

 

Google already knows a lot about you

Here’s the ironic part of everything: Google already knows a lot about you, yet it still wants to know more…and more, to keep bringing you invasive tech like this. After all, you’re already likely using Chrome as your default browser, you use Google Maps to find the exact details of each location you’re headed to, and Gmail is where you send all your important emails (because you like the size capacity).

At least with Google Now, the company’s no longer trying to hide the fact that it wants to know all about you: what you’re searching for, what your interests are, and what your preferences are across a broad range of interests.

All of this aside for a second, the only reason that Google keeps getting bigger and more successful is because…of you. Yes, you. Like many people, you’ve likely decided that enjoying convenience on the Internet is so much more valuable than actually guarding your privacy. And that means that Google Now is probably something you’re considering, in spite of its invasive accumulation of your information.

That’s been the beauty of Google’s business model from the start, and it hasn’t let the company down yet. It’s basically persuading a lot of people that their privacy is something not worth having, as long as they can save a little bit of time, get a few relevant recommendations, and maybe tap the screen a few times less.

Google Now is available as I write this, so why don’t you check it out? It can’t really hurt…too much. After all, if you enjoy getting recommendations from everything from stocks and house prices to potential wives and TV shows right on your smartphone, then you’ll be in heaven. All that it’s going to cost you is just a little bit more of your privacy, and what’s that really worth?

 

Featured image, uses eye image via Shutterstock.

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