Protecting People's Privacy: Is it too late?

The week we're looking at privacy, how everyday technology affects our privacy, and what we need to be mindful of when we connect. The Internet of Things steadily continues to extend its tentacles throughout our everyday lives, constantly generating, sharing and tracking data. So what happens to all of this information? How is it used and who has access to it? Who owns our data and how can we protect it? Does the everyday, average person even need to worry about privacy and what happens to their personal data? Is privacy dead? The articles below allow us a brief glimpse at some of what's happening with our personal information, and gives us a pretty good idea of how technology, use of data and protection of privacy are trending and what we need to think about.

The internet of everything has long been promised, but it appears as though Apple and Google are making significant progress towards connecting and tracking every wireless capable device both within the home and outside it. Technical challenges continue, but with the addition of plant water sensors, personal wearables, mailbox sensors and weather sensors in addition to smart home technology and personal assistants, we can expect these companies (and Amazon) to fully integrate these services across platforms and connections over the coming decade, essentially making most aspects of our lives traceable and trackable.

This is a small step towards protecting Privacy - it's now possible to tell Alex to delete your voice recordings. Amazon appears to be responding to a broad range of concerns regarding the privacy of its users and has designed a privacy hub to help make protecting one's personal data a little easier.

Staying with Alexa, Amazon's AI is able to accurately detect a person's emotional state by the sound of their voice. The AI has been trained using tens of thousands of voices and takes place in three phases, and the process appears to be highly rigorous and detailed. The idea is to make Alexa more engaging, responsive and able to correct mistakes, and Alex may eventually be able to monitor and detect indicators of a person's health using a person's voice.

Amazon is the dominant player in online retail, smart home systems and is entering the market in almost every known domain. So, can we trust Amazon? With Amazon devices such as cameras becoming ubiquitous, the author of this article imagines a scenario where Amazon products have fully penetrated the market, it's cameras and microphones are recording and AI is analysing our homes, lives, interactions, workplaces and shared space, sending alerts and prompts to us throughout the day. Perhaps Amazon's relentless drive towards surveillance and efficiency might want to be watched a little more closely as the company grows and expands its services.

But it's not just Amazon - Google is also listening to what's happening in home. Its engineers are gathering sound recording and data through Google's smart speakers and assistance, and it's becoming clear than although the company isn't technically 'eavesdropping', its human engineers are listening to recording of people's voices and devices are recording and storing conversations when users think the device is switched off.

Google does need data to improve its speech to command products, and converts the sound recordings into text that trains its AI. The AI needs to be able to distinguish between pauses, coughs, sneezes, mumbles and the myriad of other sounds a person makes while speaking and maintaining a flow of communication. The problem is that when a person utters something that may or may not sound like 'OK Google', the devices record everything from that point: private conversations, sex, arguments, domestic violence - the list goes on.

Google admits that it does collect this data, but of course it needs to in order to improve its products. The company's language experts listen to only 0.2% of audio fragments, and the contain no personal or identifiable information. Interesting, and one to watch.

So what does the future of privacy look like? It appears to start with becoming informed. This is an interesting study from Princeton University that tracked smart TV devices when connected to streaming services, and found that the data shared was intercepted and tracked by adsystem and other trackers such as doubleclick, collecting device information and IP addresses and information about likes, dislikes and viewing habits. Researchers at Princeton have also developed an app called IoT Inspector that reveals how active internet capable devices are even when we are not using them. The app lets you what which devices are sharing information and exactly what that is, even when you think they are switched off - Amazon devices such as Alexa continue to connect to Amazon servers even when in the microphone and device is turned off.

The Global Government Biometrics Data Report for 2017-2027 is an interesting read. Briefly, the biometrics market is established and growing, especially in emerging economies, with technology such as finger, facial and voice and even vein recognition all gaining in importance with governments (this is concerning, and we've written about it before). The report goes into significant detail, detailed projected market size and share by technology and region, channels that are driving the market and future opportunities.

"In a world that runs on data, everyday uses of technology can suddenly put people in danger when circumstances change. This also means the opposite: Most of the time, most people won’t feel the cost of having their data exploited."

This is a quote from an article that discusses what we can learn from the Hong Kong Protests about the future of privacy that resonated with me, and I believe me encapsulates what today's post is about. As one example, the moment a society protests against its government, it's ultra-efficient public transport system becomes an excellent tool for surveillance and crowd control. The article points to the impossibility of anonymity in modern cities due to constant surveillance, inequalities of access to privacy in modern times, and high AI error rates for groups that are not white men. There is hope - technological totalitarianism is not inevitable, but democratic institutions are under threat globally, and protection of privacy will be crucial.

To finish, here's an article looking at how the Secretary of State for Health and Social care in the UK is calling for increased automation of NHS services in collaboration with private sector businesses. This would involve private access to NHS datasets contained a huge amount of public information that may be misused. The article is optimistic about the potential of new technologies driven by big data to make our lives healthier and improve wellbeing, but argues that public datasets must be treated as public assets with private industry understanding what actions are appropriate in terms of access to and use of data in a democracy.

Thank you for joining us this week. We welcome any and all feedback and comments, and please contact me with any questions or suggestions you have for future articles.


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