Allo, Google’s mobile messaging app, may be sharing more with friends and family than it’s letting on. That’s what Recode writer Tess Townsend found out the hard way in a recent conversation with a friend.
Google’s Assistant is to blame, it seems. The AI-powered virtual secretary, which serves up everything from movie showtimes and flight statuses to reminders and trivia, has an unfortunate habit of pulling up old Google search results.
Townsend invoked the Assistant in a conversation with a friend, and observed it responding to a question with a non sequitur link from Harry Potter fan website Pottermore — a result related to previous searches the friend had performed a few days earlier.
The result wasn’t from Townsend’s own search history, and it wasn’t mentioned in the course her conversation with the friend. She speculates it was inadvertent — the result of a bug, likely.
Equally alarming is Allo’s inconsistent treatment of personal and sometimes sensitive information. When Townsend asked the Assistant “What is my job?” in the aforementioned conversation, it responded with a Google Maps image showing an address she’d saved in a private setting. But when Townsend later in the conversation asked the Assistant “What is my name,” it privately asked if it could share it.
The Assistant’s errant exchanges weren’t particularly damaging in this case, Townsend acknowledged, but could have implications beyond Allo. Google recently introduced a new bot, @meet, that facilitates meetings between colleagues in the company’s new Hangouts Chat app for G Suite customers. It would needless to say be problematic if the @meet bot began sharing personal scheduling details, for example, or revealed a calendar appointment meant to be kept private.
It could be related to Allo’s personal reminders feature. In February, the Google Assistant gained the ability to store contacts, calendar appointments, airline reservations, phone numbers, and more with a simple query. Typing “@google” (without quotes) in an Allo conversation pulls up the Assistant, and tapping on the Assistant icon shows all the information it has on hand. A subsequent Share option lets you share the information with another chat participant.
“We were notified about the Assistant in group chats not working as intended,” a Google spokesperson told Digital Trends. “We’ve fixed the issue and appreciate the report.”
This is not Allo’s first privacy kerfuffle. Advocates took issue with its lack of end-to-end encryption, a security feature that would protect the content of conversations from electronic eavesdroppers, and Google’s Allo chat log retention policy (messages are stored indefinitely until a user chooses to delete them).