Google on Wednesday became the latest major technology company to join a standoff with the FBI over encryption.
At its developer conference, the company announced that its new messaging app, Allo, would feature an “incognito mode” that offered end-to-end encryption. Such technology can make it difficult for law enforcement to recover messages during investigations even if they have a warrant.
In Washington DC, the FBI director, James Comey, has lobbied the administration to put restrictions on such technology.
Google isn’t the first Silicon Valley giant to offer a messaging app with strong encryption. Apple’s iMessage system uses it by default, and Facebook’s WhatsApp turned end-to-end encryption on by default this spring.
But Google’s timing is important.
The release comes just months after Apple’s high-profile court battle with the US government over encryption built into its iPhones.
The FBI had wanted Apple to rewrite the software on a phone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters to help it retrieve data. Apple refused, and the bureau said it eventually found another way into the phone.
Following that showdown, it was unclear if the tech industry would double down on strong encryption or begin to soften its stance. While technologists were almost universal in their support for Apple, public opinion polls showed a narrow majority of Americans backed the FBI.
In March, the Guardian reported that Google and WhatsApp would be releasing stronger encryption tools.
Unlike WhatsApp, Google’s Allo will not use strong encryption by default. Users will have to select an incognito mode and will have control over how long messages are stored on their devices.
It’s unclear why Google made this engineering choice, but the company does mine user content to aid its ad targeting – Google’s main moneymaker.
End-to-end encryption can also make it harder for users to search through past messages going back into the distant past.
But for some security experts, this compromise makes Google’s Allo a non-starter. They argue that mainstream consumers rarely alter default settings.
“This is too little, too late,” said Christopher Soghoian, a technologist with the American Civil Liberties Union. “Users will only get the encryption benefits first by seeking out the app, and then by turning on the incognito mode.”
He suggested Google’s Android users should just use WhatsApp.