Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Alphabet Inc (GOOGL): Allo Chat Privacy Concerns Are Way Overblown

Allo has top-notch encryption features, but they're turned off by default

After last week’s Google I/O event, Alphabet Inc’s (GOOGL, GOOG) annual tech-centric State of the Union conference, there has been an increasing buzz surrounding one of the company’s latest reveals, the Allo chat app.

The buzz hasn’t been focused on Google’s seemingly backward efforts to decompile its flagship Hangouts chat app, and replace it with multiple standalone apps. Instead, the focus has been on the company’s decision to make end-to-end encryption an optional feature that users must manually enable.

And of course, why wouldn’t privacy and encryption be the focus in today’s post-Snowden era?

Since Edward Snowden’s infamous whistleblowing, the entire nation has been overwhelmed and inundated with a constant, exasperated and sometimes hysterical barrage of news articles, blog posts and videos identifying and criticizing every potential risk — regardless of how minuscule — to our individual privacy.

What’s the Concern With Allo?

Director of Engineering, Erik Kay first revealed and demonstrated the Allo chat app during the keynote address at Google I/O. The app looks like an interesting improvement that uses Google’s existing AI technology for enhanced communication.

However, personal security extremists have put Allo in the crosshairs because its end-to-end encryption feature is not turned on by default, and must be intentionally enabled by users. That fact has made both the Allo chat app and Google the target of the most recent bout of conspiracy theorists’ fear-mongering outbursts.

The buzz even prompted Snowden himself to speak out against Allo in a Twitter post, stating opt-in encryption makes the app dangerous and unsafe.

Interestingly, Snowden did not attack or criticize the actual viability and effectiveness of Google’s encryption methodology, nor did any of the other personal security bloggers and journalists. Instead, the concern surrounds a general lack of confidence in the average user’s ability to remember to turn on end-to-end encryption if he feels it’s necessary to ensure conversations are completely secret.

So, it would seem that these “privacy savants” are more upset over Google’s assumption that users are smart enough to know when they should turn on encryption. In that light, Google has more confidence in users’ intellectual and technological prowess than many of today’s self-proclaimed personal security advocates, who obviously think Google should assume people are too stupid to understand encryption and the potential privacy risks associated with sending unencrypted messages.

Therefore, it’s the extremists who actually insult the tens of millions of Android users with their outrageous outbursts bashing GOOGL for its Allo chat features.

Bottom Line for Google and the New Allo Chat App

The sad truth is that no matter what features Google might put into its new Allo chat app, there will undoubtedly be a number of consumers who are unsatisfied and frustrated. You just can’t please everyone.

GOOGL developers are by no means idiots, and personal privacy and security were clearly major considerations when they created Allo. For reasons that I don’t pretend to know, the decision to make end-to-end encryption an optional feature wasn’t made lightly, and is the result of a careful balancing act between functionality and privacy protection.

The encryption is available to everybody, and users who are concerned with protecting the content of their messages can turn it on. That being said, Android owners who install and use Allo will have to consider the plausible risk of sending unencrypted messages, and determine the possibility of legitimate danger.

Personally, I like the idea of being able to ensure my privacy is protected — in those rare instances when I might choose to engage in taboo discussions. At the same time, I’m not afraid of using an app such as Allo even without the end-to-end encryption.

Using a mix of common sense (e.g., not sending messages containing my Social Security number or credit card details), built-in Android encryption features and when necessary, a VPN, both my device and data in transit are protected from most would-be thieves and hackers.

Of course, extremists can surely point out a plethora of flaws in my assumptions, but the truth is that I’m simply not worried about the NSA, CIA, FBI or any other Orwellian Big Brother type of government organization. I’ve got nothing to hide, and honestly, my life probably isn’t interesting enough for the men in black to take a second look at my texting.

Article originally appeared on InvestorPlace (05/24/2016)

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