The Shift­ing Cul­tural Ac­cep­tance of Pri­vacy In­va­sion

How We Al­lowed A Hand­ful Of Com­pa­nies Ac­cess to Our Most Per­sonal In­for­ma­tion

NOVO - - FURUTECH - By Aaron Binder

“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?

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