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Responding to Google’s launch of a new messaging service for Android phones, Amnesty International’s Technology and Human Rights researcher Joe Westby said:

“With its baffling decision to launch a messaging service without end-to-end encryption, Google has shown utter contempt for the privacy of Android users and handed a precious gift to cybercriminals and government spies alike, allowing them easy access to the content of Android users’ communications.

“Following the revelations by CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden, end-to-end encryption has become recognized as an essential safeguard for protecting people’s privacy when using messaging apps. With this new Chat service, Google shows a staggering failure to respect the human rights of its customers.

“Not only does this shockingly retrograde step leave Google lagging behind its closest competitors – Apple’s iMessage and Facebook’s WhatsApp both have end-to-end encryption in place by default – it is also a step backwards from the company’s previous attempts at online messaging. Google’s own app Allo has an option for end-to-end encryption but the company says it will no longer invest in it.

“In the wake of the recent Facebook data scandal, Google’s decision is not only dangerous but also out of step with current attitudes to data privacy. It means Google will now be actively encouraging  Android phone users to give up their privacy by switching to a service where their communications are effectively there for all to see.

“It is difficult to see why any Android user would choose to use the new Chat service. Google should immediately scrap it in its current form and instead give its customers a product that protects their privacy.”

Background

Communications on Chat will not be sent over the internet, but through mobile phone carriers, like SMS text messages. In a statement to the Verge, a Google spokesperson confirmed this means that the new service will not use end-to-end encryption, and that Google is “pausing investment” in its existing messaging app Allo.

End-to-end encryption is a way of scrambling digital data so that only the sender and recipient can see it. When it is in place, even the company providing the service is unable to access the content of communications.

Amnesty International considers end-to-end encryption a minimum requirement for technology companies to ensure that private information in messaging apps stays private. In 2016, it ranked 11 companies on the way they use encryption to protect users’ privacy and freedom of expression across their messaging apps. Google was placed fourth, to a large extent due to the fact it had just launched two encrypted messaging services, Duo and Allo.