Google Takes a Bite Out of Apple With New Privacy Features

JOHN G MABANGLO/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
May 8, 2019
Updated 13d ago

By Hope King

Apple in March showed off a new business strategy focused on media and services. And while there are plenty of streaming and gaming options out there, Apple’s main message was: Unlike others, we don’t give away information about what you watch, read, or play because we process, store, and lock your personal information on your Apple devices.

That Apple ($AAPL) owns the hardware and software to enable these protections has been a big advantage for the company. But if you look at what Google announced Tuesday, that advantage may be shrinking.

Privacy, security, and control were the big themes at the Google I/O developer conference.

“This morning we’ll introduce you to many products built on a foundation of user trust and privacy,” CEO Sundar Pichai said on stage within the first few moments of his keynote in Mountain View, California.

The idea of privacy and security being “the foundation” of Google popped up several more times during Pichai’s speech, and those of other speakers.

The message repetition was noteworthy because Google’s main business model has been collecting as much information on its users as possible to target better advertising and to make more money from that advertising.

But the company’s recent entry into hardware means it can start locking down its platforms the same way Apple has -- pitting the search giant up against Apple.

Here’s one example: Google Maps going Incognito. Chrome, Safari, and other browsers have had Incognito or Private modes, where history, cookies, and other browsing breadcrumbs get erased from a device after a session. Google will now bring the option to Google Maps on the web and through the app, bringing it a tiny bit closer to what Apple Maps offers.

Apple Maps doesn’t know who you are specifically, nor does it know your entire route, and it truncates precise end point locations making it even harder for you to be tracked.

Another privacy feature Google announced during the keynote presentation was tied to its newest piece of hardware, the Nest Hub Max smart assistant.

The Nest Hub Max is the big sibling to the Home Hub launched last year. There is a 10-inch screen, front-facing camera, and microphone. One of the cool things it can do is remember faces so that when someone walks into a room his or her unique profile will appear on screen.

In order to do this Google has to process facial recognition and store that information — but it’s now doing so on the device so that “camera data never leaves the device.”

Apple’s Photos app has been working this way already. When Apple suggests people or places based on your album, it’s doing so all on the Apple device, and not in the cloud.

But perhaps the strongest strategy Google has to compete against Apple on privacy is in Federated Learning.

Federated Learning is a type of machine learning that doesn’t rely on collecting vast amounts of data and storing and processing it all in a centralized place (i.e. with a company’s servers versus with the user). Instead, this version of the technology allows individual devices to learn on their own, keeping personal data on those devices.

Think of it like this: Google needs to push all your photo data to the cloud so it can sort and recommend different pictures and videos. Apple can do all that thinking on individual iPhones thanks in part to its proprietary Bionic chip. It’s like learning on your own through online classes rather than going to class and leaving your notebook behind.

Without knowing enough about machine learning to make a stronger argument about how this might change the way Google processes our data, the fact that the tech giant is making its own hardware is likely an important enabler for the shift to privacy.

Google’s previous sole reliance on third party manufacturers for its smartphones and tablets has meant the company has had less say in how some of its services — Google, Google Maps, and even Android for that matter — ultimately works.

But now that the new Pixel 3A and 3A XL are out, receiving rave reviews, and priced under $500, Google has a real chance to catch up to Apple and do the right thing of protecting privacy. The key difference however, is that Google always seems to want to give users the choice to be more private, whereas Apple has always positioned privacy as “part of the design” of its products, the default.

With mounting scrutiny from the public and regulators on Capitol Hill and in Europe, Google has had no choice but to either focus more on (or talk more about) user privacy … or face consequences.

The European Union is currently seeking some $9.3 billion in antitrust fines from Google over its dominance on mobile, browser, and search categories. In the U.S., lawmakers in Congress grilled Pichai in an open hearing last year over concerns of data collection, among several other issues.

Given the company’s heavy reliance on user data for its business model, a strong focus on privacy and security may be tricky, especially given the company’s financial standing.

Alphabet ($GOOGL), Google’s parent company, released its earnings report last month with disappointing results. Total sales for the first quarter came in about $1 billion less than expected. Sales growth from ads, which makes up the bulk of its business, slowed from 24 percent a year ago to 15 percent.

Google’s annual I/O developer conference wraps Thursday.