Does Google Now Really Need All Your Data?

On June 17th, 2015, I discussed Google Now, Apple’s Proactive and their respective approaches to obtaining your data. My main thesis was that as far as I could tell, the predictive assistant functions that most people come up with seem to be perfectly possible even with Apple’s approach. In conclusion, I said the following;

Although I certainly need to dig into this in a bit more detail, I am skeptical that invading your privacy is essential for providing a better personal assistant service. I would welcome any examples where the personal assistant must absolutely send all knowledge of everything about you to servers in the cloud to be analysed.

Phil Schiller made some comments in an interview with John Gruber which indicate that Apple thinks the same;

If ever there’s a modern definition of a Faustian bargain, this is it, right? Which is, that if you want to get the features, give us all this information about your life that you’d really rather not.

And we’ve believed for a very long time that that doesn’t have to be the case. And so we’ve built systems and processes all around the idea that, in order to help users, you can do things that are surprising and delightful and magical—but we don’t know your data.

So now the fight is on. On one side, we have Google which suggests that they need all your data to provide you with wonderful predictive assistant services (actually I haven’t seen anybody from Google actually say that, but it seems to be what the pundits are collectively thinking). On the other, we have Apple which believes that they don’t need all this data. Essentially, Apple is saying that there is an upper limit to what they need to know, and that limit is actually very low. It would be interesting to watch how good Apple’s Proactive turns out to be versus Google Now.

Of course, Google and Apple have very different business models and hence the business requirements for their predictive assistants are different. Google’s business is advertising so they need enough information to target you with ads. That might require much more personal information than what is required for just providing a predictive service. For example, if you’re just thinking of going to town, all that a predictive assistant needs to do is to give you the directions, time, lunch suggestions, etc. This can all be done anonymously. However, if Google needs to send you ads on behalf of advertisers, then the more they know about you, the higher they can sell you to advertisers. Advertisers love targeting information and would pay for a detailed profile of whom they are targeting. For example, they would love to know if you are married or have kids. They would like to know what kind of food you eat regularly. They may even like to know if you are fit or overweight. None of this is relevant for the predictive assistant task itself, but it is relevant for the ads given through the assistant. And in Google’s case, these ads are what financially support the service. Essentially, Google Now needs more personal information because they need to finance the service through ads. Even if a predictive assistant didn’t need this data to give users advice, Google would still need to collect data on behalf of the advertisers in order to sustain the service financially.