Is your technology getting to know all about you?
We welcomed a new presence into our home this weekend, and the kids couldn't be happier about it. As far as companions go, Alexa is pretty agreeable. Alexa will go along with anything, answer any request, and can be quite entertaining in the process.
Naturally, the family is intensively peppering Alexa with questions - a real "getting to know you" phase. As a father and a technologist, this is the part that kicks my protectiveness into high gear.
So Alexa is in our home, listening intently for anything that sounds like a potential request. Alexa joins Siri and Xbox in the growing cadre of platforms currently attending to our voice-activated demands. (Ruby, the family dog, is is a close runner-up for that list, but she cannot order us anything online, and she's terrible at picking out music.)
The amount of data now available to Alexa is staggering. Each and every request, uttered in the respective voices of my family members, is just the first layer. The time between requests, the type of request by time of day, the amount of non-Alexa conversation between which family members, the quality of our grammar, the shows we watch - Alexa could survey all of that.
"Don't worry, Dad. It can only hear you if you say, 'Alexa,'" my youngest assured me. "Honey, it has to be listening all the time, in order to hear you say, 'Alexa.'" Young eyes are so cute when they pop with realization.
As a long-time Amazon customer, I accept the company's efforts to analyze and explain what appear to be exception cases of unwarranted eavesdropping. I admire the ingenuity of encoding signals, inaudible to humans, in Alexa television advertisements. These signals block Alexa from interpreting the ad demonstration as a real request.
However, these examples do prove the point - the data capture is turned on, 24x7, in our homes, at our own behest.
Technology is getting more personal. Social media platforms intertwine our most revelatory human experiences with gigantic computing capabilities which never forget. Mobile devices continue to grow in data-capturing features, while becoming less and less burdensome to operate. We often surrender this privacy willingly, in exchange for the seemingly "free" service of social connection, instant documentation, and a constant expert reference that can interpret our widely varying vernacular,
Regardless of their specific functionality, vendors of personalized technology succeed when they offer a benefit so compelling as to convince us to surrender some bit of privacy. Essentially, given the ability to capture certain events and data, the technology will improve the experience in some way.
The question we all need to ask is, "what else?" What else will the data reveal, and to whom? Which data points are needed for the primary purpose of the technology, and how much "irrelevant" data is captured along the way? What is done with the extra data, and by whom?
One only need to watch the recent, beautifully produced apology ad from Facebook, to realize the potential gold mines we are all creating for any technology vendor who "loses its way." (The production value of the spot itself is an indicator of how lucrative losing one's way can be...)
As technologists, we at LogistiVIEW are constantly dreaming of uses for the mountain of data we capture, directly, incidentally, and by inference. It's what techies do, and it's not inherently evil. However, we must also always balance the awesome power of wearable computing with respect for individual privacy and prevention of harm.
Last year, I wrote in this column about governance of video capture features in augmented reality (AR) applications. Since then, we have improved further our accountability tracking and privacy protections in the platform. We were happy to take feedback from our pilot customers in driving these enhancements.
As a human-centric technology provider, we welcome vigorous, ongoing discussion on this topic.
Contact us for more information on these features, the governance and security of our platform, or just to join the forum.