Google promises better privacy tools, smarter AI assistant
MOUNTAIN VIEW — Google announced new privacy tools Tuesday intended to give people more control over how they're being tracked on the go or in their own home, part of a broader effort by big tech companies to counter increasing scrutiny of their data collection practices.
The company also announced updates for its artificially intelligent voice assistant as well as a cheaper Pixel phone and a rebranding of his smart-home products.
CEO Sundar Pichai kicked off the company's annual developer conference by noting that the company wants to do more to stay ahead of "constantly evolving user expectations" on privacy.
That focus echoed throughout the day, with the company demonstrating how many of its artificial intelligence capabilities — including some facial recognition and voice searches — are beginning to be processed on devices, rather than by constantly sending information to company servers.
Some critics, however, say Google's privacy updates sidestep more substantial changes that could threaten its ad-driven business model.
"They're sort of marginal improvements," said Jeremy Tillman, president of Ghostery, which provides ad-blocking and anti-tracking software. "They are not bad, but they almost seem like they're designed to give the company a better messaging push instead of making wholesale improvements to user privacy."
Data privacy and security at Google and its Big Tech counterparts have been under the microscope for more than a year now. Facebook dedicated much of its own conference last week to connecting people though more private channels rather than broadly on the social network.
Google announced smaller but tangible changes across many of its products. The company makes billions of dollars annually by selling digital ads that are targeted at the interests people reveal through their search requests and data collected by Google apps and services.
For instance, the company said it will extend an "incognito mode" feature to its Google Maps and search apps. When activated, the app won't record user searches or movements, analogous to how the same feature works in its Chrome browser and YouTube now.
The latest version of Google's Android phone software will also alert users when apps may be exploiting access to phone location data, which Stephanie Cutherbertson, an Android senior director, called "some of your most personal information." Android Q, as the new operating system is currently known, will also let users restrict apps' access to location more generally — for instance, by only allowing apps currently in use to gather the data. (Some apps record location data continuously in the background.)
Location data has been a sore subject for Google. In 2018, an Associated Press investigation found that Google continued storing phone location data even when users turned off a "location history" setting in Android.
The company also revealed plans to overhaul Chrome to let users rein in so-called tracking cookies, which are bits of software that follow people around on the web. The move, which could have major repercussions for the digital advertising industry, would require companies to identify cookies used by third-party websites and advertisers to track users.
In coming months, Google said that change will enable users to clear most of those tracking cookies without disturbing others that keep users logged into sites or that personalize website settings. Chrome currently only allows people to clear all cookies.
Competing browsers such as Apple's Safari and Mozilla's Firefox already build in privacy tools to block sites from tracking online activity.