Google Now, a virtual assistant that comes standard on the newest versions of Android, is digging ever deeper into users’ data in an attempt to be more useful.
Its latest trick is the ability to pull up a digital boarding pass on your smartphone for United Airlines flights the moment you arrive at the airport. The digital boarding pass includes a QR code to scan at the gate along with information on the terminal, gate number, seat number and boarding group. (More airlines will offer this feature eventually.)
If you’re an iPhone user, this may sound familiar. Apple’s Passbook feature in iOS 6 can also bring up boarding passes for select airlines. But there’s a key difference: With Passbook, you’ll need to install a separate mobile app for each airline you travel with that lets Apple’s service pull in the data. Google Now retrieves boarding passes from Gmail, so only need to have them e-mailed to you when checking in–no extra apps required.
Your Gmail data provides other fodder for Google Now as well. As of October, Google Now looks for flight confirmations, so it can automatically notify you of upcoming flights and changes to your itinerary. And in the latest update, Google Now looks at where you’re going, and tells you how the weather will be when you get there. The service can also remind you of hotel, event and restaurant reservations so you needn’t go fishing for the address, and when you’re at home, it can show you tracking info for packages you’ve ordered.
Perhaps the whole thing is a bit creepy, knowing that Google is fishing through your e-mail for various kinds of data. But that’s the point. Google Now is supposed to be automated, so when you open the Google Search app, all the information you need is right there. If something’s really important, you’ll get a notification without having to visit the app at all. Google Now wouldn’t be as helpful if it wasn’t helping itself to our data.
Besides, if Google Now’s Gmail mining makes you uncomfortable, it’s easy to turn off. Just open the Google Search app, go to Settings > Google Now and uncheck “Show cards based on Gmail.” Or you can turn off Google Now entirely from that same menu. (For many Android users, it’s a moot point anyway, because Google Now is only available on Android 4.1 or higher. The vast majority of Android phones run an older version of the operating system.)
Google Now’s new features are, as Sean Parker once put it, “good creepy,” whereas bad creepy would be something like Google’s secret collection of Wi-Fi network data. Although Parker was talking about Facebook and frictionless sharing, what he said rings true for Google Now as well: “Today’s creepy is tomorrow’s necessity.” As long as Google Now continues to provide adequate user controls, and is clearly using Gmail data to make a better virtual assistant, it should help itself to whatever it needs.