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Google Lens And The Privacy Challenge

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It has been one week since the Google IO 2017 conference was over. We saw great announcements there, such as the Google assistant for IOS, the Android Go for low-cost smartphones, and others. Probably the one that took more press was the Google Lens, the project through which Google Search Engine (a.k.a. The “Assistant”) will be able to offer information based on images, rather than words.

This image recognition search definitely enables a lot of interesting use cases. For example, the one described by Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, during its presentation:  “If you’re walking in a street downtown and you see a set of restaurants across you, you can point your phone and we can give you the right information in a meaningful way.”

It looks like it is a very natural movement regarding Google’s missions about “providing information in one click”. It could be a service that survives longer than other less meaningful services presented by Google in previous years. However, there is a big risk to the Google Lens launch and survival: privacy.

From the technical point of view, Google Lens might not be as complex as it sounds. The so-called augmented reality has been there for a while. It is just a combination of Image Recognition to identify objects, and Artificial Intelligence to learn and provide information about them.

The real “revolution” of Google Lens is not technological, it is social. Because Google is putting an “eye” on each Android phone, and each user is becoming a rich media information supplier for Google. When a user is scanning those restaurants described by Sundar, it is not only scanning those restaurants but also the people inside them and what is happening next.

One could argue that Google Lens would be identifying only specific objects and discarding the rest of the image. But Google cannot control what pictures and objects people will be scanning, and that information traveling to the cloud (including people, places, etc) will definitely bring privacy and security concerns.

The phrase “Google is the big brother” has been repeated many times, but it has never been as true as after the Google Lens announcement last week.

Will Lens be another product killed by privacy concerns as was  Google Glass? Maybe yes, unless Google and its partners ecosystem are smart enough to put the right privacy and security measures regarding the service design and operation. And even more important, unless they are able to explain those measures seamlessly to users and regulators. It sounds like yet another big transparency challenge for the Mountain View giant, time will tell.

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Article written by David Purón, Founder and Chief Executive Officer at Barbara IoT.