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For months, we have seen a number of controversies arising over how technology companies (and passive) amounts of personal data they can access from our apps, devices and services. It raises interesting questions of trust.
How can we trust a company that can track and share our movements every day?
How can we know that organisations using our personal data will do so for 'good'?
How do we know that we can trust an algorithm that can determine what content we see on social media or that comes up in a search engine?
I was surprised to read in the Guardian recently that over the past six months...
"Every major producer of voice-assistant technology has been revealed to be operating human-oversight programmes, having run them in secret for years. Many have pledged to change their systems."
That's a lot of voice assistant organisations that have been listening to user recorded information over a long period. It's good to see that Amazon now allows an opt out from human review and others such as Apple and Google have paused their listening programmes pending review.
But it's worrying that others such as Microsoft (for both Cortana and Skype) have done little other than update their privacy policies. It all raises an interesting ethical issue when it was revealed that Apple listeners to accidental Siri recordings had reviewed...
"Confidential medical information, drug deals, and recordings of criminal and sexual activity."
A small proportion of these Siri recordings were passed to contractors working for the Apple tasked with grading the responses on a variety of factors. Some 300 staff at the contractor, Globetech, were required to transcribe and grade records to see how Siri was triggered and whether the query was dealt with successfully. They have recently had their contracts terminated by Apple following a review but whilst they were working they were expected to each listen to more than 1,000 recordings from Siri every shift.
The requests are not associated with the user’s Apple ID and responses only analysed in secure facilities, but the concern for Apple was that it hadn't made users aware that this was taking place. Recordings are accompanied by some user data showing location, contact details and app data so a certain user profile can be built up from this information. There is also no current opt out, albeit this is expected to be included in Apple's next operating system release later this year.
You also have to put this in the context of the recent push from Apple and others to emphasise user privacy. Apple's advertising campaign debuted during CES in January this year promoted the slogan “What happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone.” While Apple takes care of its own services and encrypts data the biggest gap identified by the Washington Post was from third-party apps that have significant access to an iPhone's data.
In a single week, I encountered over 5,400 trackers, mostly in apps.
As the Washington Post highlights app makers often use trackers because they are ways to save time or extract additional revenue from user data. Some are paid by app makers to analyse what users tap on and look at. Other trackers pay the app makers themselves and leverage value out of the user data to better target ads on other apps or platforms. Trackers can have seemingly harmless purposes such as improving app performance, delivering better marketing effectiveness or allowing advertising to work as intended.
Apple and other mobile operating system providers do tend to require apps to get permission from a user to access certain parts of the device, including camera, microphone, location, health information, photos and contacts. There is less focus on the apps themselves however and how they use data. And for the apps themselves whilst they tend to make privacy or data use policies available very few of them tend to disclose the use of third party trackers or how those companies they use protect and store data.
Organisations such as Facebook have also tried to focus more on privacy including a commitment not to “store sensitive data in countries with weak records on human rights like privacy and freedom of expression in order to protect data from being improperly accessed." Google has recently rolled out an “incognito mode” for using Google Maps but it’s a shame this wasn’t the default from the beginning.
All of this matters (and will matter more in future) because we are spending so much of our lives online. When devices are ever more connected the footprint we leave and the information we share will define a wide variety of aspects of our digital lives. Even seemingly innocuous aspects can impact us.
For example each iPhone has a unique ID that lets advertisers track how users of that device move around the internet and apps. The IDs are meant to be anonymised but given they are linked to the phone itself it is possible to build a potential profile of the consumer using that device.
Regulation is struggling to catch up so it really falls on the user to keep care of their data privacy and understand what they can do about it. Most users are starting to realise that the price of accessing free services from their favourite apps is the likelihood of these companies leveraging their personal data for advertising or other purposes. But many users are only starting to realise the depth and scale of the data that is held and a fraction of the ways it is being used.
Ultimately we need people, processes, and tools to be focused on digital trust. We need frameworks that ensure the right level of accountability of organisations; auditability of their processes; transparency of their methods, set against a backdrop of ethics and equality. Getting this right is the role of businesses and governments but also of individuals in the context of society as a whole. As we build the technology landscape in realtime we can't afford to be ignorant of the trust we wish to place in digital.
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