Several days ago, the New York Times printed an article regarding Amazon and Google’s applications for new patents. The patents hint at an ability to listen to more of the home environment via their respective virtual assistant (VA) devices. Both companies have transparent policies and repeat often they do not sell or advertise based on personal data.
Yet the trial by way of public opinion has started. Especially after the Facebook fallout.
While Amazon and Google do have access to mass amounts of information, and it’s scary to think of them listening, the truth is little to no data is private any longer. Companies have collected information for as long as people filled out forms.
And selling that data is not a new practice either. Selling phone numbers and emails to advertisers and marketers is not a new phenomenon.
So what makes this news, and previous news regarding how the devices record or send to their respective servers, frightening to the average consumer? Mostly because they do not know how companies use their information, nor do they understand how the devices work.
Collection of data
Collection of personal data has been around before the advent of VAs. In fact, collection of data has been around before Google, search engines, or the internet.
Every account a person opens, including financial and utility, tracks data. Most companies will provide the small print, in which they will describe when and how they use data. In the case of financial institutions, along with credit bureaus, federal regulations limit what can be done with that private information.
Yet, have you ever wondered how a credit bureau received information regarding the new car loan or an unpaid electrical bill? Stated in most policies is the exclusion of sharing with third parties with interest.
Of course, we have opened into the era of data sharing. Very few individuals think twice about agreeing to an app with access to pictures, location, contacts, and other behavior data points from mobile phones. Similarly, search engines and browsers regularly see what people are searching, picking up behavior patterns. Data on every person is flooding servers and the internet every second of the day.
So, what happens with that data, who uses it, and who gets to see it?
As we mentioned above, all companies will have stated terms and conditions regarding the use of their product. The consumer is required to click, sign, or in any fashion agree to the terms before the product can be used. Within those policies, data use is usually explained in clear language.
The awareness of what each app and company is tracking then falls upon the consumer.
It’s no different than when an email or phone number is provided to pull an article of interest. Affiliate marketing is built upon email lists, and those email lists can be sold to other marketers. This is data selling.
Yet, this information rarely includes personal data such as demographics and location. Rather, this is merely a collection of emails or phone numbers.
The real concern, and the reason for trial by public opinion against Amazon and Google, is who has what demographic information and how are they using that data.
The big two
It is true, Google sells ad space to companies. Though to be fair, Google does not need to sell private data to marketers. Nor would they ever need to violate the trust of individuals who provide demographic information.
Google has created algorithms that track behavior, interest, and purchases. Yet they do not tie this to any personal information gathered through Gmail, Android, or other Google platforms. Rather, each platform has an advertiser ID assigned, an anonymous tracking entity that notices buying behavior and interests.
What it does not track is demographic information.
An advertiser says they want to market to individuals who have an interest in sweaters and live in the Northeast. Google accesses all advertising IDs that match the requested segment, and then shows ads to those IDs. The information is never shared or sold to the advertising company. Nor is any private information accessed in the process.
Of course, all of this is under your control. At any time, you can see what Google has stored, and you can tell Google what not to do with your information. Google leaves control of your information in your hands.
Similarly, Amazon tracks your buying and request patterns to tailor shopping to the specific buyer. Unlike Google, Amazon does have third party vendors and affiliates who require some information, as well. Those third parties are clearly stated any time a transaction occurs.
What can you do about it?
The truth of the matter is the average American provides their personal, private, or otherwise singular markers to multiple companies every day. In the era of IoT, information about people is regularly uploading to servers around the world.
Location, preferred places, and buying patterns are just the surface of the information we willingly provide every time we access the internet.
In some cases, companies have changed policies. Last year Google issued a policy change stating they would no longer scan email for marketing information. Note, Google did not read email. Nor did they share private or personal information. An algorithm scanned for keywords and added that word to the advertising ID of that individual.
Due to public outcry, Google changed their policy.
In other cases, it’s on the consumer to know what data is collected and how to delete or limit it. Consumers can access their information in Google and Amazon and delete anything they do not want. This includes Google Home and Alexa.
While the focus is on data collecting for advertising, the real purpose behind Google Home and Alexa collecting data is for user experience. As we mentioned in our machine learning articles, the more data allows for a smarter VA who can assist in more efficient ways. Same with search engines and other data collecting algorithms.
It then becomes on each consumer to decide efficiency and ease versus privacy. And if you choose privacy, it’s an easy process to delete. In the era of data, consumers cannot be passive participants and must choose how and when to provide their data.