It’s easy to compartmentalize the idea of digital privacy. “Whatever,” we may think. “No one is interested in my life.” Then we watch something like The Social Dilemma that explains how companies — and Russian hackers — use AI to plumb the depths of the internet, registering our every move as fodder for their neuroscience-based behavior modification triggers. Maybe they’re just trying to get us to re-engage with Twitter, or buy that new mattress you’ve had your eye on. Maybe they’re Russian hackers using AI-collected information to push your outrage buttons. Either way, even though they don’t know you, they’re crawling around in your data finding ways to direct your behavior…and that’s just creepy.
That’s the thing about AI when used for data collection: by itself it’s neither good nor bad; the question is how it’s used. It is incredibly helpful for lots of things like allowing you to log in faster or finding the information you’re looking for more quickly. It’s the nefarious purposes that are worrisome. For example, in 2020, a lot of articles sounded the alarm about an artificial intelligence app called Clearwater that can identify someone from a photo by scanning internet images for matching data. And while a tool like that could be great for learning about someone you might want to date or, as some police departments found, finding suspects, it could also be used by marketers to target advertising opportunities or, far worse, by stalkers and kidnappers.
Artificial intelligence is often used to invade privacy because it is so good at quickly gathering and comparing data. And it’s just becoming more efficient. In 2019, the leading AI and machine learning technology could achieve 38.7 quadrillion operations per second. That’s slow compared to the fastest AI of 2020. AI can quickly build a picture of someone by scanning through public records, social media, the apps people use, the websites they frequent, the items they’ve purchased, and more.
How AI gets to your data
Every time we use an app or a website or “accept cookies” we’re essentially putting little trackers on our computer or phone that let companies follow us around and compile data on us that they then might share with somebody else. Google, for example, can track about 70 percent of credit card purchases done online.
As we said earlier, data mining using AI is often used for fairly innocuous things like selling stuff. If we visit an outdoor sporting goods site, for example, that company might let its partners know we were there, so the partners can offer us a deal on an outdoorsy magazine subscription or a wilderness vacation. That’s a little unnerving, but potentially also nice if you’re interested in the offer.
But some of this tracking is used for other things that we might not like, like employers or others scoping you out before making a decision about you, or Russian hackers pushing your emotional buttons to create social chaos. The hackers can do that because AI collects the data that tells them which button to push.
As AI has improved over time, we’ve gotten more accustomed to the idea that we trade our personal data for convenience. It’s a little bit like boiling the frog. Slowly, we’ve become acclimated to the idea of no privacy. From time to time, something like Clearwater makes us pull up the covers, but then we get busy and shrug our shoulders about the data that’s being collected on us. The problem is that when we do mind, it’s hard to control who has access to our data. And it’s a very lucrative business: The spend on AI systems will reach $57.6 billion in 2021 globally and the AI market is expected to explode to $190 billion by 2025. Getting people to impose ethical restrictions when that kind of money is at stake is tough, especially in the United States.
So exactly what is going on with AI and your privacy?
AI makes a picture of you
For a long time, people thought that Facebook was listening to their private conversations. How else would it be that you would talk to someone about buying a drone or a pair of boots and the thing you talked about would show up in your ad feed the next time you logged on? AI is how. Facebook is not listening to your conversations. In addition to being illegal, the logistics of listening to that many conversations would be staggering, especially since most conversations don’t contain any useful information for people who would buy it. AI is a simpler, cleaner, pretty much unregulated way to find out what you’re thinking and what you might buy just by pulling together a lot of other information like where you live, where you shop, and who your friends are.
The picture isn’t always accurate. It gets things wrong, which is one reason self-driving cars aren’t the norm … yet. As an example, photos AI creates from pixelated images may only resemble the person’s real face, not replicate it. AI often mistakes one object for another, one emotion for another and doesn’t register people of color at all. But it’s getting better all the time. And it can sometimes find very specific and uncomfortable information about us. One study showed that attackers who can access encrypted web browsing data in transit can sometimes use machine learning to spot patterns that can predict which website, or even which page someone is visiting. The technique, known as web fingerprinting, could identify a website from 95 possibilities with up to 98 percent accuracy.
No governing body
At present, there’s very little to protect consumers from this technology or the people and organizations who use it. Europe enacted its General Data Protection Regulation which requires websites to ask consumers for permission to collect their data as well as ensuring it will turn over any data collected at the consumer’s request, among other things. The California Consumer Privacy Act is another. And there are various international efforts to create laws and a set of ethics around the use and deployment of AI. But the technology is so new, relatively, and the people who make and enforce policy so unfamiliar with it, that it’s a bit of a wild west with no one really in charge.
Some people have proposed creating a compensation for sharing our data, a data bank if you will, so that every time your data is shared in a way that will economically help a company, you are compensated. That has yet to be created though.
Emerging technologies may solve the problem for a while. Two such technologies include Differential privacy systems which introduce randomness into user data to thwart de-anonymization tactics and homomorphic encryption which lets machine learning algorithms operate on data without decrypting it. Technologies like this could help…until someone finds a workaround, which hackers usually do.
It may turn out that market forces drive privacy protection. Apple is introducing a 2021 iOS update that lets users decide whether their apps can track them. Facebook has struck back vehemently against Apple for this move, knowing that losing access to users’ data is going to hit them hard in the bottom line. If this turns out to be something that pays off for Apple though, other companies may try it, becoming the vendor of choice by protecting their users’ information.
Protecting your own privacy
If you’re concerned about keeping your data as private as possible, there are some strategies for doing so. These include:
- Using a VPN to mask your activity online
- Using your browsers in Incognito Mode
- Using open source browsers and operating systems
- Not accepting cookies or taking the extra step to only accept cookies that are essential for a website to function, not to target ads to you
- Playing the adversary
This last suggestion is deploying “adversarial examples” or false trails in a sense, for the AI to follow. Researchers at Duke University found that AI and machine learning can identify a person’s gender by their rating of a particular movie. But by deliberately tweaking your behavior by a few data points, like rating apps to create a false sense of where or who you are, you can throw the AI off. Of course, it’s machine learning so it will be back on your trail in no time.
On the one hand, people often don’t care that their data is being collected. But when a data breach threatens their money, their safety, their relationships, their future, or similar fundamental attributes of a free society and happy life, privacy suddenly becomes a very relevant issue. Whatever rules are put in place must be international, since the digital world has no borders. Ultimately the force for creating a shared set of ethics and laws will likely come from a combined effort between governments, consumers, and the industry working together for a common good.
Image Credit: metamorworks / iStock.