Please Don’t Read My Mind, Facebook – We’re All Friends Here

Facebook recently made headlines for creating a 60-strong team of engineers – from machine learning experts to neural prosthetics specialists – responsible for developing a “silent speech communications” system. This is essentially technology that would allow users to think commands at their smartphones and, in essence, create a system that could read users’ minds.

If that all sounds a bit too Twilight Zone for you, you’re not alone. For many, this is progression – but at what cost? How close is too close? Let’s take a look back at a few recent cases.

Amazon Echo has enjoyed a wealth of success since the product first launched back in 2014. There is now an undeniable appetite for digital assistants in the home, and competitors have rushed to launch their own equivalents of ‘Alexa’, including Google Home and Samsung’s Bixby.

Recent reports that suggest Amazon Echo is always listening to its users, recording and saving conversations beyond the spoken commands directed at it, have made headlines around the world. This has – understandably – left a bad taste in some users’ mouths, and in one notable case led to a search warrant being issued to Amazon as it was believed the device may have held audio recordings of a suspected murder.

However, this doesn’t appear to have hampered its reputation too badly. Millions of units were sold worldwide during the last Christmas period, up 9x on the previous year, making the Echo and Echo Dot Amazon’s best-selling products of the season.

Last year messaging app WhatsApp announced an important change to their privacy policy, automatically opting users who accept the new T&Cs to share user data with WhatsApp’s parent company – Facebook – for the purpose of targeting advertising on the social media platform. The idea of handing over private messaging history to Facebook didn’t sit well, with many choosing to opt out of sharing their account information. Consequently, in November 2016, Facebook agreed to temporarily pause the use of WhatsApp data for advertising in Europe after coming under pressure from the European Union’s data protection watchdog group.

Facebook itself has been at the centre of a separate ongoing debate about privacy for over a year. In early 2016 news spread of users having ads served to them on the social media site following very specific conversations they’d had in real life. Interestingly, Facebook explicitly states in its terms & conditions that it doesn’t use data collected from a user’s microphone for ad targeting.

Similarly, a lawsuit requesting more than $5 million was filed against Bose earlier this month, claiming that the company had been spying on headphone and speaker users and selling their listening data through the Bose Connect app.

Until they can overcome the hurdles posed by privacy and data protection, tech firms will continue to face these issues. Transparency is key here – this in turn will increase trust in their brand, products and services. To do this, companies need to avoid any sleight of hand by burying or hiding contentious changes to policies in the dark depths of new terms & conditions.

Tech giants shouldn’t shy away from this criticism – after all, the majority of nascent technologies face similar battles in the race for widespread public recognition.

Instead, the industry ought to embrace questions about privacy and protection and ask users what they want, as this will allow the sector to grow and help firms get that bit closer to what their customers are really thinking. Only once they’ve done this will companies be able to truly win the trust of the public.

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