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Google Assistant’s new Guest Mode is more private, but there’s a trade-off

“Hey Google, don’t save any of my interactions with you.”

A Google Home smart speaker casting a sinister shadow, to represent issues of privacy and security. Neil Godwin/Future Publishing via Getty Images
Sara Morrison is a senior Vox reporter who has covered data privacy, antitrust, and Big Tech’s power over us all for the site since 2019.
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If you have a smart speaker or smart device but aren’t thrilled with the possibility that your data — including your voice — is being collected and stored on it, Google Assistant might have an answer for you: Guest Mode.

Google is introducing the new feature to its smart speakers and displays today. It’s kind of like the Google Assistant version of Chrome’s Incognito Mode (though there are differences). Once Guest Mode is on, your interactions with Assistant won’t be saved to your account. But, as Google points out, you also won’t get the “full, personalized Google Assistant experience.” In Guest Mode, Assistant won’t say or show personalized results — for instance, anything from your contacts, calendar, or emails. But you’ll still have access to some of Assistant’s most popular features: the ability to control your smart devices, get the weather report, and play music.

All that said, Google notes that, while Assistant may not save your interactions with it in Guest Mode, other apps and services you’re connected to and use while in Guest Mode might save that data on their end. For instance, if you look up a location using Google Maps or play your Spotify playlist, they can still keep a record of your requests. That’s something to keep in mind if you’re using Guest Mode because you’re doing something you really, really don’t want anyone else to know about. (I would argue if it’s that important to keep whatever you’re doing a secret, you probably shouldn’t use a smart device when you do it.)

Another nice thing about Guest Mode is that, as the feature’s name implies, you can use it for guests. Assuming we’re able to safely invite people into our homes again at some point in the future, activating Guest Mode when they’re around is a nice way to ensure that your devices aren’t collecting their data without their knowledge or consent. Or, more selfishly, that their requests or preferences aren’t saved to your account.

Guest Mode also shows the delicate balance between privacy and usefulness for voice assistants. Smart speakers and displays work best when they know as much as possible about us and our behaviors (like human assistants), but the trade-off is that, well, they know as much as possible about us and our behaviors — as do, by extension, the companies that make them. Depending on what you are using Google Assistant for, Guest Mode might work just fine for you all the time or in certain circumstances, and make you feel a little better that the data you’re giving it isn’t being saved to your account. But you may also decide that the loss of functionality isn’t worth it.

If you want to see what a more private but less functional smart home device is like for yourself, you can try it now. Just say, “Hey Google, turn on Guest Mode.”

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