The Shifting Cultural Acceptance of Privacy Invasion
How We Allowed A Handful Of Companies Access to Our Most Personal Information
“Refrigerator, how much do you know about me?” 15 years ago, the idea of handing over all your personal data to a cloud-based refrigerator seemed a foreign concept yet today we live in the era of the smart fridge, smart speaker and smart toilet. Smart homes have become affordable for an increasing number of people and with these advancements, considerable questions about convenience and privacy. In recent years we’ve simply accepted that the companies, from hardware manufacturers to Facebook, have been protecting our data the way they’ve claimed. But with explosive developments like the Cambridge Analytica data breach and Mark Zuckerberg’s subsequent deposition on the subject, there may be a need for further protections.
With a variety of daily use devices and appliances connected to the internet, we’ve been given far more control over our capability to get the fridge temperature just right. Part of this convenience has come at the price of handing over tracking and preference data to businesses – anytime you click Agree, even on a refrigerator, you’ve likely agreed to anonymously share your data. Usually it’s worded as a way to help them improve customer service and products and that’s probably true.
But what happens when it’s a Personal Virtual Assistant or Artificial Intelligence tracking and monitoring your usage? Does the line between personal privacy and corporate responsibility look different when the Agree button is constantly learning, adapting and shifting?
The Decade of Clicking Agree
Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home and a host of others are vying to keep your life hasslefree as you agree to a broad set of data collection terms. Our seemingly mundane coffee preference, fridge temperature or laundry settings may not mean much right now. As as we begin to integrate more Virtual Assistants into our lives though, the capability for these platforms to influence our purchasing decisions and even grand life choices becomes more apparent.
Many groups of people and individuals have railed against government surveillance and potentially intrusive practices since pretty much the dawn of government. An oppressive state is a fear for many and increasing reality for others, aided by the acceptance of corporate surveillance.
The very allowances we’ve begun to give corporate giants are, in many cases, what we’ve been telling our governments to stop monitoring. Track personal healthcare expenditures better? No thanks, Big Brother. Get an extra 100 gems in Candy Crush in exchange for giving your age and gender to a third-party vendor that may or may not be a government agency? Yes please!
The last decade has featured an ongoing progression of more allowances, monitoring and daily integration of these technologies into our lives. As we’ve become more reliant on technology to perform daily tasks, we’ve also found ways to make this technology perform tasks more easily. Who isn’t into telling a Sonos speaker to skip your least favourite Led Zeppelin song without having to get up and manually press a button?
Soon, it may be an AI skipping it for you
using predictive technology. That same AI may also begin to monitor your body’s rhythms to determine the best time for baby-making. It may seem intrusive to some but to others it’s a heaven-sent gift.
Modern tech giants like Google, Amazon and Facebook have all made our lives more convenient, efficient and consumer-oriented. When Apple first launched the iPhone there were a few scant voices talking about how the smartphone revolution would join hands with decreased personal privacy in the digital world.
Just over a decade later and those few voices have been washed out in a sea of millions repeating “Alexa, can you search Youtube for the latest funny cat video?”
Clicking Agree has become commonplace and the biggest benefit offered to corporations is that most people consider it a nuisance, something to hurry through, regardless of the content within the agreement – cue the Human Centipad episode of SouthPark.
In just over a decade we’ve seen a huge discussion on privacy usurped by the desire for convenience and while these concerns still exist, it doesn’t seem we’re turning back anytime soon. In fact, we’re more likely to see far deeper integration between human, corporation and AI.
Virtual Best Friends
Earlier on it was complex algorithms which would be broken down by humans using specialized software to determine categories, demographics and preferences. The first iterations of smart home technology still relied on educated guesswork and disparate technologies trying to work together. Today, simply saying “Alexa” or “Hey Google”, brings a host of home control options. So what about the next step of an Artificial Intelligence becoming not just like a family member but your home?
Physical manifestations of AI like Google Home and Amazon Alexa have put an innocuous face to the practice of data collection but offer an incredibly heightened in-home experience. Not only can these AI’s make life simpler, they’re also capable of learning living habits. Leaving for work? An AI can reduce the temperature in your house, lowering the pressure on power grids and turning you into an AI environmentalist.
Loneliness, anxiety and social distance all become easier to handle with a friend by your side. If you don’t have a social network though, a Virtual Assistant may become the next best thing. Especially for folks in later stages of life that may not have the mobility to leave home often, an AI with a personality could help reduce the impact of loneliness.
Looking forward to future generations, the impact of screens and online interaction brings up questions that previous generations couldn’t have even comprehended. The generation currently coming up in Western and emerging nations don’t know life without screens. Very soon, this generation won’t know life without a Virtual Assistant, once companies start developing more complex personalities for these assistants, they’ll become part of the family.
By the time they start to have families, these Assistants will be entrenched in almost every facet of home life – a virtual butler, helping with homework, perhaps even helping solve family arguments. This brings with it another huge host of questions far above and beyond the current hot topic - ‘is Alexa listening to me?’
Will ads even look and sound the same? Instead of displaying a pop-up, a company may simply employ a more passive technique in tandem with your personal AI. “Jennifer, I noticed you have an appointment at your doctor today at 3 before dinner at 5. This is close to Target which has a sale on shoes today, do you want me to schedule 30 minutes for shopping?”
Dystopian or Utopian?
While companies (especially Google) claim to be doing no evil, the lines will continue to blur between personal privacy and convenience. Do many people care that Alexa or Siri is constantly listening? Probably not.
As I was weighing the convenience vs privacy argument for this article, I contacted a friend of mine that doesn’t quite live offgrid but uses the internet once or twice a week from a remote Mexican village. Her take on the privacy issue is: “As long as I’m clicking agree, I’m giving my consent. I figure if humans feel it’s getting out of hand, some human rights organization would author a document to offer us more protection. I think I’m more apathetic than I used to be. I know I’m being watched and everything I type into Google is profiling me…but I don’t really care.”
This is likely the answer most would give, especially when contrasted to the recent, truly incredible advancements in AI functionality. There are few that would trade in Google Home after experiencing just how robust it can be. How much does your refrigerator know about you? Probably not much right now but in coming years when a fully integrated home AI comes stock, it’s going to know just how many times that ½ litre of cranberry juice is going to make you pee over 2 hours.
AI technology will continue to develop quickly and as more consumer applications come into play, we will all have the option of a fully integrated, personality-driven friend linked into all our devices. There is no question our daily lives will be made easier by these AI but the question I’ll leave you with is this – how comfortable are you being listened to 24/7 by a corporate agent?