Facebook’s announcement that it is testing a digital assistant called “M” means that each of the “big five” technology companies is now in the digital assistant game. Facebook M joins Apple’s venerable Siri app, along with Google Now and Microsoft’s Cortana. Even Amazon has the Echo, a voice-activated internet of things appliance.
These assistants might revolutionise how we interact with our digital devices, our homes, and the world. They promise to effortlessly help us find, and even predict what we want. Facebook says M will make advances through leveraging its unmatched database of personal information, coupled with invisible human “trainers”. By applying artificial intelligence to your Facebook data, M could help you buy gifts, book travel, and reserve tables at restaurants.
But there’s a catch. And it strikes at the heart of what’s at stake in our digital lives. Just like human assistants, M and its competitors work better the more they know about you. The more you invest yourself and your data in its world, the more effective M will likely be. For M to work its best, we must trust it with everything.
When lives and corporates are cut loose
M’s demands for our trust will expose us to Facebook more than ever before. Consider what this could mean in practice. Linked to Facebook, M could accidentally share sensitive details about our lives to others. In an age when data breach seems inevitable, a hack of M could make Ashley Madison look like small potatoes.
More fundamentally, will M be acting in our best interests, or will its loyalties lie with Facebook and its advertiser clients? We might never know, because the important details of how these technologies work are shrouded in secrecy, and there is little obligation for Facebook to be transparent about how it works.
One reaction to this might be that M is creepy, but creepiness tells us little about whether technology will improve or worsen our lives. Similarly, M will be touted as resting on user choice. In practice no one reads these policies, such as Apple’s infamously long and wordy document. And they shouldn’t be expected to. These long, complex, take-it-or-leave it terms, like other problems in consumer protection, usually just saddle us with the risks of our valuable personal data being disclosed.
Instead of creepiness or the fiction of choice, Facebook M is the perfect opportunity to understand the essential role of trust in our modern information relationships. Facebook has invited our trust. Many of us have given it. And the law should make sure that Facebook respects it.
Trust is beautiful. It allows us to develop long-term, sustainable relationships by feeling confident that what we share will not come back to harm us. Trustworthy companies are discreet, honest, protective, and loyal. These four principles can serve as the foundation for our modern notions of privacy, which encourages us to engage in online commerce, socialisation, and political discussion. Consider how well Facebook M could work if it followed these principles.
Four foundations of trust
Confidentiality law can be used to ensure Facebook M is discreet with our information and takes care not to reveal our secrets and sensitive information to third parties in harmful or unexpected ways.
Our laws against unfair and deceptive trade practices could require that Facebook be honest about any what M is collecting, how it is using our data, and biases affecting the user experience. Facebook shouldn’t be able bury all this in the fine print, either. M’s own user experience could inform users.
Data security law should require Facebook to protect its incredible honeypot of our data from attackers with encryption and other appropriate safeguards.
Finally, and critically, lawmakers should take a page from the law of fiduciaries to require that Facebook is loyal to us, privileging our wellbeing over its short-term financial gain from our data. Loyal companies will only use data to the extent it doesn’t endanger or negatively affect us. Facebook should not use our data to affect our moods (or influence our voting); nor should it try to mould us into the kinds of consumers its advertisers desire.
If we want to build a society that harnesses our data in ways that are beneficial for all of us, rather than a few tech company elites, the essential ingredient is trust. This means real, enforceable trust, not a trap for unwary internet users. If Facebook is discreet, honest, protective, and loyal, maybe it can live up to its promise. But if it isn’t, M will be no more than a disloyal spy in our pocket. And we will all be worse off as a result.
Originally posted: Facebook’s New Digital Assistant ‘M’ Will Need To Earn Your Trust