Google knows what you search late at night. It knows what directions you need and where you’re going. It knows what emails you check and which ones you delete. If you’re an Android user, it knows your texting habits and which apps you waste most of your life on. Use Google Photos? It knows your face (and all of your ‘loved ones’), too. Google knows far too much about you, and it’s done trying to hide it.
Google first started collecting information from all its services — not just Gmail, but Maps, Calendar, YouTube, Wallet, and the rest — back in 2012. Now the Google Extended Universe™ is finally here. At the Google I/O developer conference keynote Tuesday, the company announced a whole host of new plans and products, most of which appear to be designed to work in tandem, silently sharing your data, habits, and preferences from one app to another.
Listen to the entire Future section at The Outline give their reactions to the announcements at Google I/O 2018.
Take, for example, the company’s redesigned Google News, which instantly tailors the stories it shows to a user’s preferences, even without explicit input.
“As soon as I open Google News, right at the top I get a briefing with the top five stories I need to know right now,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai explained. “As I move past my briefing, there are more stories selected just for me. What's cool is I didn't have to tell the app that I follow politics, love to bike or want information from the Bay Area. It works right out of the box.” Though Pichai doesn’t specify how Google News knows these things without user input, the implication seems pretty obvious: It gets it from somewhere else.
As for where exactly, it’s hard to say. Perhaps your search history, Google Assistant query data, Google Photo geotags, Android app download history, or something else entirely? Google’s sphere of influence and pools of potential knowledge go far beyond the clearly fathomable. Take the upcoming Android feature, feature app actions, for example:
“Last year, we introduced the concept of predicted apps, a feature that places the next apps the OS anticipates you need on the path you would normally follow to launch that app, and it's very effective with an almost 60% prediction rate,” said Android’s VP of Engineering David Burke. “With Android P, we're going beyond simply predicting the next app to launch to predicting the next action you want to take. We call this feature app actions... What's happening here is the actions are being predicted based on my usage patterns. The phone is adapting to me and helping me get to my next task more quickly.”
While that’s all well and good in principle, the idea of one company not only having access to your usage patterns and habits for every app on your phone, but also sharing it across a number of different platforms to inform a number of different programs is a bit worrying. In a conversation with The Verge, Android’s VP of product management, Sameer Samat, expanded upon the extent of the knowledge garnered by Android AI when working in tandem with app actions. “When you modularize the app, it’s not just an API call,” Samat explained to The Verge. “You have these components that can be understood by the system, predicted by the system, and then rendered by the system.” In short, it’s not just collecting random information about your use of apps, but trying to truly understand it.
Though these sort of development could have wonderful short term benefits in the day-to-day lives of consumers, there’s an undeniable potential for misuse. The scale of such an undertaking is so vast and the specifics so murky that it’s difficult to imagine a realistic path towards transparency or accountability. Opening the floodgates of information is tempting, sure, but — as tech scandal after tech scandal has shown us — it often goes poorly.