Google is in a bit of controversy (what’s new?) about the level of privacy in one of its new apps, a messaging app call Allo, which is due out this summer.
What’s the fuss about Allo, you ask? Its end-to-end encryption, that’s what. Without going too far in the weeds, here’s what that means. And why you might care.
Encryption is enabled by using “keys” to scramble the contents of messages’ text, voice or video, so that only the recipient with the key can view them. These keys can be 80 digits long and change with each message, making it impossible to break them.
But many of these schemes have a weakness: The encryption only goes as far as the server that your email or chat provider uses to transmit it to the real recipient allows, so users have to trust the third parties that are running the servers. End-to-end encryption requires that the key only be available to the end user, making it impossible for the provider (or the telecom company transmitting the message, or an eavesdropper) to read it.
This also means that the provider cannot provide the contents to another party, such as the FBI, that wants to read it, even if it has a warrant.
Some, like WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) provide end-to-end as a matter of course, if you and the recipient are using versions from this past April on. They even erase the messages from their servers after they are delivered as another security feature.
Generally, you and the recipient have to set up end-to-end one time, unless the application does it automatically for you. Apple’s iMessage has had it on auto since 2011, and its FaceTime app has had it since 2010.
Where Is It?
The controversy with Google’s application is whether end-to-end will be set up by default or if it will require the user to opt-in. Google will (at least as of now) require you to deliberately set it up. How many people will do that, of course, depends on how easy it is. Will it be right up front and easy to do the first time you install it, or will it be buried down several pages in the Setup screens?
If it’s not automatic, the number of people using it (or even knowing it exists) will be way smaller. Most advocates of privacy want it everywhere.
Google is saying that it will not be automatic because enabling it will interfere with Google Assistant, its version of Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa. Assistant is designed to use the wealth of data collected by Google to tailor its messages to you. To do that, it needs to run artificial intelligence on the messages on its servers, something that end-to-end encryption will prevent.
While this may not allow Google to know you like explosive action movies, and thus tell you that “Captain SuperBatWebHulk Meets Godzilla” starts this weekend at midnight, many of us would consider that an improvement.
In any case, if you do opt to use Google Assistant, be sure to enable it. And ask if the addressee has done so as well, so you know that your privacy is empowered. Perhaps if enough people do that, Google will work on an Assistant that isn’t so intrusive but still guides you to the theater showing “CSBWHMG” tonight.
More on Cars
Self-driving trucks, actually — which might be even scarier. A recent test run was made in Europe of a truck convoy of a dozen trucks that drove more 1,200 miles through four countries that used vehicle-to-vehicle communication, something that will be necessary for true self-driving vehicles to work.
Even though each truck (and we’re talking double-length European monstrosities) had a driver just in case, the motion of the convoy was controlled by the lead driver. When he accelerated, they all accelerated. And when he braked, they all braked. By doing this, they were able to go an average 50 miles per hour while staying less than 30 feet apart.
But what happens if some hotshot decides to break into the middle wasn’t reported — something that, based on my experience, would be more than expected in Italy. At 90 miles per hour on a curve with no guardrail on a cliff 200 feet above the sea, for example.
Anyway, technology is advancing and being tested for self-driving everything. Whether it will come quickly is another matter. On a practical note, a lot of the buzz involves trucks making runs through the vast open spaces of the west on long-distance runs. So here you have jobs (truck drivers) that are now done by people with high school or less education that are being threatened.
Put a tech nerd advocating this up against a bunch of angry Teamsters and their lobbying arm with money to spend on elections and see what happens. It won’t be pretty.
Cliff Feldwick is owner of Riverside Computing and does PC troubleshooting, network setups and data recovery for small businesses, when not trying to install artificial intelligence into his 1998 Camry in place of the tape deck. He can be reached at 410-880-0171 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Older columns are available at http://feldwick.com.