In the world of technology, it all keeps coming back to privacy

Privacy is the elephant in the room, unavoidable at every turn, and too big to ignore. And it will keep coming up week after week, especially as the Internet of Things evolves from being a concept to a new reality.

Privacy is the issue that sucks up all the air in most debates about modern technology

Amazon's new AI-enabled speaker, the Echo Look, has a camera that allows users to interact with the device to help them choose an outfit in the morning. (Amazon press handout)

Every week, there's a new story with the same issues.

As a columnist, I'm constantly on the lookout for something happening in tech that will make for an interesting discussion. And there are always new stories: about social media and election outcomes, live streamed government coups, scintillating corporate tech scandals and so forth. 

But the problem is, the underlying theme is often the same, and this week I hit a wall.

All about privacy

I can't call it writer's block, because the problem isn't that I don't have anything to say. The real issue is that it all revolves around one topic: privacy. Or rather, the ever-increasing lack thereof. The troubling reality is that while there are seemingly all sorts of interesting conversations happening in the world of technology, they almost all lead back to that big gaping privacy black hole, the issue that sucks up all the air in most debates about modern technology. 

Take this recent example. Last week, Amazon announced the Echo Look, their latest home assistant upgrade. "Look" acts sort of like a style assistant, with a hands-free camera that will take full-length "selfies" on voice command, allowing users to decide what outfits look best.

Now, the "Look" is exactly the kind of thing I like to write about; it's novel, and yet, we can see from the adoption of the current model of the Echo, which responds to voice commands, that it has consumer appeal. People seem to like the idea of a hands-free interface. But it also presents unprecedented ethics and privacy concerns, ones we may not even realize at first glance.

Amazon has said that the photographic tool is meant for our convenience — to help users pick out which outfits look best on them — but the company has offered little by way of reassurance that they won't be doing more with the data gathered from the Echo Look. And while Amazon has generally been good about designing their products with privacy in mind, with the Look, audio and video content is said to remain on their servers until the user opts to delete them, creating a treasure trove of personal data that grows by the day.

As far as I'm concerned, if Amazon doesn't want to tell me what they plan to do with my image, I don't want them taking it in the first place. After all, just imagine if the context was different: if this was a photographer, or even a friend, and they were sheepish about disclosing what they might do with my photos, I would definitely be wary of letting them take my picture. So why should this be any different?

Convenience vs. privacy

This sort of privacy negotiation we have with Silicon Valley's biggest players keeps coming up again and again. Just last week, I wrote a column on an entirely different story —  Facebook's flirtation with mind-reading technologies – but with the same underlying concerns, questioning the corporation's motive for wanting to get even more intimate with us, and literally into our thoughts.

I've already looked ahead to a column for next week, reflecting on a recent Maclean's article about companies asking workers to get microchip implants. The devices are being touted as a great innovation for convenience, allowing workers to bypass keys and passwords simply by embedding a microchip under their skin. Once again, the toss up is between privacy and convenience.

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You see, no matter what the specific story is — a virtual assistant's new features, a company's mind-reading ambitions, or the quest to turn our workforce into cyborgs – a constant theme keeps popping up.

Privacy is the elephant in the room, unavoidable at every turn, and too big to ignore. And it will keep coming up week after week, especially as the Internet of Things evolves from being a concept to a new reality. As the world's biggest tech companies all race towards the next big thing, maintaining our privacy seems at risk of being bulldozed. 

Ultimately, we're in the middle of a big cultural negotiation between privacy and convenience. The truth is, it's not a zero-sum game, and it doesn't need to be either or. In theory, we should be able to enjoy all of the features that these new gadgets promise, without giving up our privacy. But in practice, it's a topic we can't ignore, and a battle we need to be willing to address.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.


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