I've written a lot about Google's Pixel hardware, and the fantastic success that the company has found in leveraging software to outperform even the best smartphones out there in the last few years. But, what I've started noticing is a sea-change in how the company talks about its innovations, privacy and the data it collects — to the point that it's time for a real conversation about it.
At the Google event in New York City just a few weeks ago, the company went to great lengths to emphasize privacy, and new local-only methods of using machine learning to ensure potential buyers of its hardware that it isn't monitoring everything you do. It's a refreshing change of pace for a company that's largely cagey about clearly detailing what it's collecting.
The problem, however, is that it stops short of explaining what it does collect, and it's becoming a glaring hole in the narrative that's holding both its hardware and software efforts back from wider success. People assume everything isn't private, and it's hard to reconcile anything else when it's only mentioned fleetingly.
A fantastic example of Google's investment in privacy is one of my favorite Pixel features, 'Now Playing,' which displays music playing in the background automatically and shows it on the lock-screen without the need to actually ask it to do so.
Naturally, having the microphone automatically do this probably prompts you to assume that the company is monitoring it all the time, sending it back to its servers. Lots of people on Twitter have assumed this! The opposite is the case: Google spent a huge amount of resources building this feature to be privacy-minded, running the machine learning entirely locally and offline, without sending anything to its servers:
Now Playing miniaturized music recognition technology such that it was small and efficient enough to be run continuously on a mobile device without noticeable battery impact. To do this we developed an entirely new system using convolutional neural networks to turn a few seconds of audio into a unique “fingerprint.” This fingerprint is then compared against an on-device database holding tens of thousands of songs, which is regularly updated to add newly released tracks and remove those that are no longer popular.
The debut of Pixel 3, as well as other hardware like Home Hub, saw many new features use similar techniques to ensure user privacy across the board.
Adaptive battery, which learns how you use your phone and optimizes apps over time to ensure your device lasts until you go to bed, is one example of this. Call screen, which allows you to have Assistant handle inbound calls without answering them does the same, keeping the entire call transcript local to your device. Hell, there's an impressive interview with Google's machine learning folks discussing the groundbreaking AI work they're doing with the camera, offline, on your own device. There are so many of these efforts it's genuine, and impressive, to see the shift.
Beyond that, it's hard to understand what's private and what isn't. Google doesn't do a good job on the device itself of explaining the impressive privacy-focused qualities of these features, nor does it mention when it's actually collecting data.
Users genuinely have no idea whether or not Android is tracking the ways they do the banal, like interact with apps (which I assume it does), or if that ambient music feature is actually siphoning off the data to the cloud. By default, I'd bet that they assume it is being funneled somewhere, which is a shame.
I'm what I'd consider a 'power user' that taps through every menu out of banal curiosity, but even I struggle to understand where the line is drawn, or what's being collected. Data collection doesn't bother me if the features I'm using are absolutely worth the exchange, but doing it in the dark does make me wary.
Yes, Google is an advertising-funded company, but that doesn't need to be assumed to be bad, evil or inherently any inferior to any other monetization model. People around the world can gain access to services and devices they wouldn't otherwise have, without the premiums seen on other devices, and I think that matters.
While many people are willing to demonize such models, which rely on data collection to optimize ads for you, I'm not quite so hard on it because I believe the advertising industry is what allowed art, and the web, to flourish in the same space. I've been able to write, dream and experiment in a career path I never imagined, thanks to advertising-funded models and I don't believe that they're nefarious by default.Apple's entire focus is privacy, often at the expense of useful features (what's up, Siri?), but at the very least the company is very clear what it's tracking and what it isn't.
Google has a serious problem in the long run, because it's terrible at distinguishing the difference between the two worlds: there's no way to know what's used and what isn't.
I'm really impressed by the Pixel team's dedication to building privacy-minded experiences, but it's a waste if nobody has any idea where the line is drawn. The keynote in New York was littered with references to privacy-focused AI functionality, but how will the average user know when they assume the worst by default?
Google needs to come down on a hard stance here if it's going to keep pushing forward on this trajectory. It's on the right path to building meaningful, high quality experiences that don't collect data, but I want to see the company start openly explaining what it's collecting across Android. If asked, it'll probably point at the privacy websites it runs, but it isn't enough: it needs to start owning this conversation.
Apple's approach with iconography that highlights an action where personal data is being collected is a great way to do so, and even if Google collects a lot more across the OS, I think users would be comfortable with using the more powerful, privacy-minded features that could otherwise seem scary if they're accustomed to assuming everything is monitored.
If Google is going to spend millions of hours, and dollars, on building these boundary pushing features that work offline, without collecting my information, it's time to address the elephant in the room head on, rather than avoiding it. Maybe it'll be scary, confronting or even uncomfortable, but in the long run it'll help the company win people over by sharing that information.
It's time for Android to put what's collected, when, front and center, and provide more control over it. We're used to the ad-funded world now, but the time for being vague is over.