Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Tech Companies Should Be More Upfront and Plain-Spoken with Practices That Could Violate Users’ Privacy

Nicole Nguyen, Buzzfeed News:

As we found out yesterday, Facebook paid outside contractors to transcribe voice memos from users who turned on chat transcription in the Messenger app. The company is the latest in a string, including Amazon, Google, Apple, and Microsoft, caught sending users’ audio to third-party firms for analysis.

[…]

Most folks buying Google Homes and Echos from a mall kiosk aren’t aware. That’s in part because of the products’ “just like that!” marketing, but largely because Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook haven’t clearly told consumers what they do with their voice and video information. None of those companies’ data policies state that what we say and do in front of our voice assistants, internet-connected cameras, and messaging apps can be shown to strangers employed by the companies or their contractors.

Plain-language explanations of practices that may be compromising to users’ privacy can be hard to write. I am certain that the opt-in rate would be extremely low if these devices asked users — during the onboarding process, for example — whether a selection of their voice recordings can be retained and later reviewed by a human being.

Nevertheless, it is unquestionably the right thing to do.

Companies should be able to educate customers on why they should opt-in. They should be upfront and direct about what they will do with recordings. They should go to great lengths to explain how recordings will be de-identified, processed anonymously, and removed within days. That builds confidence that users’ recordings will not be exploited, and that a small compromise of their privacy will lead to better results, should they so choose. Of course the opt-in rate for this will be low — but that’s how it should be. Better that then having these shady practices exposed, with users left feeling violated.