Google releases some pretty cool apps on a regular basis. But, it just doesn’t seem to get the whole privacy thing. This week, it announced that it is extending its Google Now personal assistant technology to enable it read your bills — and tell you when they’re overdue.
The first thing that will strike most people is that they don’t really need anyone to tell me when they owe money. It's a sure bet that they are painfully aware of that themselves.
The second thing is privacy. Google has already admitted that it snoops on your emails to produce personalized advertising. Why would it want to look at your bills?
Google Scanning Your Bills?
According to a (very) short blog post about the release, Google simply states the new functionality reminds users whether they’ve paid their bills on not, based on bills that arrive in Gmail. The post explains:
Tap the mic on the Google app (g.co/googleapp) and say, 'Show me my bills” or “My bills due this week.' If you have the payment due date and amount in your Gmail, you’ll see a quick summary of upcoming and past bills. Pretty handy, huh?"
To do this, Google has to go into your email account. While Google already carries out a brief scan of email contents for advertising, this looks like it would require a closer scan of the details.
Admittedly, users have to agree to the new functionality, firstly by turning on the Google Now feature in their search app, and secondly by giving Google permission to access their Gmail account.
Google has also said that for those users that do opt in, it will let them know on an individual basis whether content coming into their online accounts is being fed into their mobile app.
Google’s Privacy Record
Even still, it’s hard to trust any large technology company on this one. If whistleblower Edward Snowden had not revealed the US regulators were systematically monitoring email content — and had the fall-out from those revelations not shown that IT companies were doing the same, albeit for different purposes — it may be that no one would have known about it.
The point here is that Google says it won’t harvest this kind of information without express permission. But do you trust it? Many don’t.
It just seems that Google can’t get the privacy thing right and privacy regulators are really starting to get hot under the collar about it?
Only two weeks ago, European Union data regulators put further on pressure on Google to get its privacy act right in a six page document outlining measures that Google should take to protect personal data.
Among other things, the regulators want Google must tell users exactly what data is collected and with whom it is shared.
They also suggested that Google must “provide users with more elaborate tools to manage their personal data and to control the usage of their personal data between all Google services,"
This new bill-reminder functionality really seems to fly in the face of this. While regulators in the US appear to be a little bit slower than their European counterparts, it can’t be long before they start insisting on new safeguards, too.
Until privacy and data retention issues have been clarified and regulated to everyone’s satisfaction, maybe Google should stand a back a bit and focus on apps or upgrades that are genuinely useful, like the upgrade to Hangouts that it also announced this week.
The upgrade comes in the shape of a new Chrome App for Chrome OS and Windows that will make it easier to use Hangouts from the desktop while using other apps at the same time.
The new app has contact lists and chats condensed into one easy- to-toggle window and works outside of the browser. Users get all their messages as long as they have the app running, while chats will sync across Hangouts on all devices.
The new Google Hangout function
Google also announced a new polling feature that enables users of Google Plus create polls with up to five choices, and beautify them with photos uploaded from Google Plus photos, a mobile device or Google image search.
The new feature will be available for Android in the next few days, and is coming soon for Apple's iOS mobile OS.
There is undoubtedly many more apps on the way from Google that will be considerably more useful that an app that is bound to raise the hackles of many users by compromising privacy. Personally, I’d rather Google stayed away from my bills.