Google Maps gets incognito mode amid big privacy push

Google pushes its privacy story with easier access to privacy controls and incognito mode for Google Maps.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

Google, much of whose business relies on collecting personal information, is talking up privacy at its Google I/O developer conference. 

After last week announcing that Google users can auto-delete search and location history data, the company has announced that Google Maps is gaining an incognito mode, akin to the privacy feature in Chrome that lets users hide web activity from other people using the same device.

According to Google, incognito in Google Maps means that user activity, such as places searched and directions, won't be saved to a Google Account. 

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The privacy control will be accessible on the Google Maps mobile app by tapping the profile picture in the search bar. This will display a menu with the option to "Turn on incognito mode". After that the profile image is replaced with a generic person-in-a-hat icon. 

The profile picture is not currently in the search bar but will be soon as part of Google's answer to giving users easier access to privacy controls.

"Today you'll see your Google Account profile picture appear in the top right corner across products like Gmail, Drive, Contacts and Pay. To quickly access your privacy controls, just tap on your picture and follow the link to your Google Account. The prominent placement of your profile picture also makes it easier to know when you're signed into your Google Account," explained Eric Miraglia, Google's director of product management, privacy and data protection office.   

Google hasn't said when the feature will be available. The company revealed the Google Maps feature at its I/O 2019 developer conference, where it's made privacy a central theme. 

Google wants consumers to trust it enough to place its new $229 Nest Hub Max devices inside their homes. The devices feature a smart camera and microphones that will capture and transmit video, images and audio to Google's data centers.  

The product launch comes as trust of big tech companies is low, and follows the recent discovery that Nest Guard home security devices shipped with an undocumented microphone that Google failed to inform customers about. Nest Guard had one microphone that was not enabled by default, and was there to support a forthcoming Google Assistant feature.   

Google has a chequered history when it comes to privacy and end-user controls. In September, it was found to be logging users into Chrome when they log into a Google site, and was hard-pressed to explain why turning off Location History for Google Search and Maps on a smartphone didn't work as it claimed it did

As of today, all Google Home products will now fall under the Google Nest brand, which are subject to Google's new "privacy commitments" for its sensor-laden home devices. 

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Google promises not to make the same error it made by omitting that it had an undocumented but not-yet-enabled microphone in Nest Guard devices.  

"When our connected home devices include cameras, microphones, or environmental or activity sensors that detect information about your home environment, we'll list these hardware features in the device's technical specifications — whether or not they're enabled," the policy reads

"We'll also more clearly explain what types of information these sensors send to Google, as well as examples of how we use that information, to help you better understand their purpose."

It also promises to keep video footage, audio recordings, and home environment sensor readings separate from advertising, and pledged not to use this data to target ads. 

However, Google states that "when you interact with your Assistant, we may use those interactions to inform your interests for ad personalization."

The commitment applies to connected home devices and services that Google Accounts under Google Nest, Google Home, Nest, Google Wifi and Chromecast brands. 

It comes as Google begins a campaign to encourage Nest customers to migrate from Nest Accounts to Google Accounts. 

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