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Explained: What Google is promising for greater privacy

At Google’s annual I/O developer conference, which is taking place in Mountain View, California, ‘user privacy,’ was clearly the message that the company wanted to highlight

Written by Shruti Dhapola | New Delhi | Updated: May 9, 2019 9:29:00 am
Google I/O 2019, Google IO 2019, Google privacy, Google Federated Learning, Google Chrome, Google Chrome cookies, Google Ads, Google Account settings, Google Account privacy, Google privacy, Google Privacy Google CEO Sundar Pichai during the I/O 2019 keynote. (Image source: AP)

At Google’s annual I/O developer conference currently under way in Mountain View, California, CEO Sundar Pichai said: “People have clear meaningful choices around their data. We strongly believe that privacy and security are for everyone, not just the few.”

Google has long faced criticism for collecting huge amounts of user data, which it has used to build an advertising juggernaut. Late Tuesday night, Pichai’s pitch was privacy — that Google wanted to do more for users, but with less data over time. How would that work?

Federated Learning

Google Assistant, which is present on almost all Android phones, and relies on machine learning (ML) models for its intelligence, is set to get faster and more efficient. The ML models that Google currently employs collect raw data from the phone. Requests made to Google Assistant are sent to the cloud for processing, and stored there.

Google I/O 2019, Google IO 2019, Google privacy, Google Federated Learning, Google Chrome, Google Chrome cookies, Google Ads, Google Account settings, Google Account privacy, Google privacy, Google Privacy Google says Federated Learning will reduce the amount of raw data being collected from phones for AI and ML tasks. (Image source: Google Blog)

Pichai called Google’s new approach to ML “Federated Learning”. It would not involve collection of raw data from the device — instead, ML models would be shipped directly to the phone, which would update the model, and send it to the cloud. The entire updated global model would then be sent back to each device. The result: improvements with on-device execution of tasks, rather than collecting data from the phone.

It is not clear when this Federated Learning approach will become the norm across Google’s products. Google’s Gboard is using this approach for next word prediction.

Google I/O 2019, Google IO 2019, Google privacy, Google Federated Learning, Google Chrome, Google Chrome cookies, Google Ads, Google Account settings, Google Account privacy, Google privacy, Google Privacy Google will make it easier for users to manage their data in Google Maps, Google Assistant and YouTube. (Image source: Google Blog)

Easier privacy settings

Google will make it easier for users to see the data they have saved across its major products. In the new account settings, the Google Account Profile picture will appear at the top right corner in Gmail, Drive, Contacts, and Pay. Users will be able to access privacy controls by tapping on their picture, and following the link to their Google Account.

This one-tap access will roll out to more products, including Search, Maps, YouTube, Chrome, Assistant, and News. Users will also be able to manage their data more easily in Google Maps, Google Assistant, and YouTube. It will let users review and delete location activity data in the Google Maps app itself, Google said.

Auto-deletion of data

Google has said it will let users cap the time for which their Location History and Web & App Activity data are saved. The options will range from three months to 18 months, after which the data will be deleted automatically. The new control, already available for Web & App Activity in the Google Account settings, will come to ‘Location History’ next month.

Google I/O 2019, Google IO 2019, Google privacy, Google Federated Learning, Google Chrome, Google Chrome cookies, Google Ads, Google Account settings, Google Account privacy, Google privacy, Google Privacy Google will add an Incognito mode to Maps. (Image source: Google Blog)

Incognito mode on Maps

Maps and Search will get an Incognito mode. The feature is already part the Chrome browser and YouTube. When Incognito mode is turned on in Maps or Search, the user’s activities (such as the places they search for, or the directions they seek) will not be saved to their Google Account, ensuring greater privacy.

Android Q and privacy

The Android Q operating system will have improved location privacy, and let users restrict the time an app gets to access location data. Apple’s iOS has several settings for location data, where a user can choose from never, all the time, and only when using the app for this particular information.

Google I/O 2019, Google IO 2019, Google privacy, Google Federated Learning, Google Chrome, Google Chrome cookies, Google Ads, Google Account settings, Google Account privacy, Google privacy, Google Privacy Android Q will also put greater emphasis on privacy. (Image source: Reuters)

More privacy on Chrome

It will have improved cookie controls for increased privacy. Cookies are used to track browsing activity across the Web to serve personalised content and ads by third parties and advertisers. Chrome will provide more transparency on how sites are using cookies, as well as simpler controls for these cross-site cookies. Developers will have to specify which cookies are allowed to work across websites, and which are being used to track users.

Google I/O 2019, Google IO 2019, Google privacy, Google Federated Learning, Google Chrome, Google Chrome cookies, Google Ads, Google Account settings, Google Account privacy, Google privacy, Google Privacy Sundar Pichai said the company was determined to put user privacy and security first. (Image source: AP)

Ads and transparency

Google will disclose new information about ads published on its properties and those of its publishing partners via an open-source browser extension that will work across browsers. The extension will let users see new information, including the names of other companies that were involved in the process, which resulted in an ad being shown to the user.

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