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Google CEO Sundar Pichai, speaking at I/0 2019 on Tuesday. Photo: Google

Tuesday's Google I/O keynote paraded the usual new hardware and software, but the biggest development was the emphasis on privacy that the company wove through each of its rollouts.

Why it matters: The move is, of course, timely: In the wake of scandals and data spills, all Big Tech is talking privacy, even if individual companies have very different agendas. And Google is the company that basically invented the monetization of user information, unlocking the secret to minting billions online by targeting ads based on user data.

The big question: Is Google really making a fundamental shift — or is it just applying window dressing.

Details: Google's privacy moves include...

  • New limits on advertiser tracking in the Chrome browser.
  • New tools for users to control or remove their data.
  • Fresh commitments from Google on how its growing hardware empire would use and store data.
  • Find more specifics here.

Between the lines: The conventional wisdom is that Google wants and needs all the data it can get because the ads that fuel its profits depend on that data. In other words, Google would need to upend its business model to offer significantly more privacy.

Executives insist this isn't the case. The really valuable data, they say, comes from knowing what a user is looking for and where they are at any given moment. That's far more relevant to advertisers than the vast troves of historical and demographic data that Google has amassed over the years.

Our thought bubble: Giving Google the benefit of the doubt doesn't mean assuming that it's acting purely out of altruism. If its business is advertising, especially search, it needs to make sure that consumers trust Google enough to use the products that generate its core revenue.

  • Today, that's still heavily concentrated on PCs and phones via search and the web.
  • But the queries of the future will come in many forms — through voice commands and via cameras — and on many more devices.

Yes, but:

  • Features and commitments are a start, but only time will tell just how much privacy Google is really committed to.
  • Google is a big company with many moving parts, and even if its overall direction is toward greater privacy, there are bound to be some slip-ups and backslides.
  • Perhaps most importantly, Google can also afford to collect less data on users because the power of machine learning will allow it to infer more about them.

We've already seen an example of this when Google stopped scanning your Gmail to serve advertising.

  • It didn't do so because it suddenly decided the practice was creepy or obtrusive.
  • Instead, it turned out that there's other information the company knew about Gmail users that was more valuable for targeting ads than the contents of your inbox.

What they're saying: Google, like Facebook, argues that there's a reasonable and valuable tradeoff between the data users provide and the free services they get.

  • In a New York Times essay Tuesday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai wrote, "A small subset of data helps serve ads that are relevant and that provide the revenue that keeps Google products free and accessible."
  • In a riposte to Apple's Tim Cook, who has argued that customers choose Apple's higher-cost devices in part because they trust Apple to keep their data private, Pichai added, "Privacy cannot be a luxury good offered only to people who can afford to buy premium products and services. Privacy must be equally available to everyone in the world."

Go deeper

Thousands without power as "hazardous" winter storm lashes East Coast

Winter view from Charlotte as winter storm Izzy creates dangerous conditions in Charlotte, N.C. on Jan. 16. Photo: Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A major winter storm was lashing much of the East Coast on Sunday, causing widespread power outages and disrupting travel over the holiday weekend.

The big picture: Heavy snow and ice accumulations are "likely to produce hazardous travel," downed trees and more power outages from the Mid-South to the Northeast, per the National Weather Service. Some parts of the U.S. can expect to see up to a foot of snow through Monday.

Updated 4 hours ago - Science

Volcanic eruption in Tonga caused "significant" damage

This satellite image of the eruption on Jan. 15 taken by Himawari-8, a Japanese weather satellite operated by Japan Meteorological Agency and released by National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT). Photo: NICT via AP

Significant damage has been reported in Tonga following an undersea volcanic eruption on Saturday, which covered the Pacific nation in ash and cut off communication lines.

Driving the news: The eruption triggered tsunami warnings across Tonga's islands and in other regions, including the West Coast of the U.S. and New Zealand.

5 hours ago - World

North Korea launches 4th suspected missile test this month

A news broadcast in Seoul, South Korea, of an apparent North Korean missile test on Monday morning local time. Photo: Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images

North Korea's military fired "two suspected short-range ballistic missiles" eastward from Pyongyang on Monday morning local time, per South Korean and Japanese officials.

Why it matters: The fourth such launch since Jan. 5 comes days after North Korea's military warned of "stronger" action if the U.S. moved to have more sanctions imposed on the country.