When digital comfort becomes too personal

Wanneer digitaal gemak te persoonlijk wordt

Image Gerd Altmann via Pixabay

A lot of public outrage this week now that it appears that, in addition to Google, Apple also allows people to listen in to recordings of their voice assistant. Apparently the fact that a human being is unnoticed listening in on what you are doing and saying sets a limit to what we are willing to accept in terms of privacy. Has this reached a turning point?

Interestingly, we have little problem sharing personal information through the mail, social media, or in the traces we leave when surfing the Internet. While we know that when we choose a (free) email account, we are actually opting for the letter carrier to go through our correspondence and store it for analysis and advertising purposes. But it doesn’t end there.

The tracking cookies and web analysis tools used on many websites go even further. In fact, translating this into the physical reality, which we find easier to grasp than the less tangible digital world, means that we are personally followed wherever we go on the street. Everything we look at and everything we do is noted and analyzed; which store we gaze at with awe in the window, where we go, how long we spend somewhere, and so on.

“Analysis by algorithms may feel less like a personal invasion of privacy after all”

Although resistance to this is also gradually growing, mass outrage still seems to remain absent. Perhaps this is because we assume that this analysis is not done by people, but by algorithms. And that perhaps feels less like a personal invasion of privacy, while this practice in its comprehensiveness actually goes much further than randomly listening in on a few voice recordings.

From that perspective, it is interesting what happens when we develop our artificial intelligence to the point that it will pass the Turing test. That test comes down to the fact that we can no longer distinguish between a human and a computer (read: machine-learning algorithm), as machines begin to approximate human intelligence and behavior.

Perhaps the blurring of the distinction between human and machine will be a tipping point for a new wave of public outrage?

People are indeed listening

Meanwhile, Apple, like Google, has indicated at least for now that it will stop listening in without conscious consent. So the major Internet companies are indeed hearing the public call to be more careful about this.

Therefore, for those who do not feel comfortable with an invasion of their privacy, here is the following suggestion as a message to your voice assistant: “Hey Siri, Hello Google, please respect my privacy!”

Action perspective for the government

The question is of course whether acceptance of the privacy terms will then be indirectly enforced in the terms of use of the service as a whole. That is why the Dutch Data Protection Authority is in the meantime setting its sights on websites that refuse to offer their services to users who do not accept tracking cookies, even though those cookies are not necessary for the website to function. The problem here lies in the lack of a free choice, by not being able to use a service anymore when refusing these non-functional cookies. And this is not in line with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

It is important for governments to continue to search for an appropriate balance, and above all to look for a practical translation of protective laws and regulations that allow users to maintain their enjoyment of the fantastic online opportunities. The social call of people who value their privacy is an important compass in this regard. There is still a (digital) world to be won!