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Google I/O's security and privacy focus missing on day one

It’s fairly easy to find stories sparking security and privacy concerns regarding a Google product or service — Search, Chrome, Android, AdSense and more — but if you watched or attended Google I/O, you might be convinced everything is fine.

On the first day of Google I/O, there were effectively three keynotes — the main consumer keynote headlined by CEO Sundar Pichai; the developer keynote headlined by Jason Titus, vice president of the developer product group; and what is colloquially known as the Android keynote headed by developers Dan Sandler, Romain Guy and Chet Haase.

Google I/O’s security content, however, was scant. During the course of those talks, which lasted nearly five hours, there were about three mentions of security and privacy — one in the developer conference in regards to Firebase, Google’s cross-platform app developer tool, including help for GDPR concerns; and two in the Android keynote regarding the biometrics API being opened up to include authentication types bdesides fingerprints and how Android P will shut down access for apps that monitor network traffic.

Sandler did mention a session on Android security scheduled for Thursday, but there were more than enough moments during day one for Google to point out how it was handling security concerns in Android. Research into the Android P developer previews had uncovered security improvements, including locking down access to device cameras and microphones for background apps, better encryption for backup data, random MAC addresses on network connections, more HTTPS and more alerts when an app is using an outdated API.

Even when Google’s IoT platform, Android Things, was announced as being out of beta and ready for the limelight, there was no mention of security despite that being one of the major selling points of the platform. Google claims Android Things will make IoT safer because the company is promising three years of security and reliability updates. (The question of whether three years of support meaningfully moves the needle for IoT security is a question for another time.)

Privacy is constantly a concern for Google Assistant and its growing army of always-listening devices, but the closest Google got to touching on privacy here was in saying that the new “continued conversations” — which will allow more back and forth conversations with the Assistant without requiring the “OK Google” trigger — would be a feature that users would have to turn on, implying it would be opt-in to allow the Assistant to keep listening when you don’t directly address it.

Beyond all of these areas, Google has a history of privacy concerns around how much data it collects on users. Google has a more well-defined policy about how that data is shared and what data is shared with advertisers and other partners, but it’s not hard to imagine Google getting swept up in a backlash similar to what Facebook has faced in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica episode. Given that controversy, it’s surprising that Google didn’t want to proactively address the issue and reassert how it protects user data. It’s not as though staying quiet will make the public forget about its concerns regarding Google.

Google I/O’s security focus was largely non-existent on the first day of the show. Time will tell whether or not this is anomaly or something more concerning.

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