Can AI save us from the Mobile Privacy crisis?

Can AI save us from the Mobile Privacy crisis?

Ever tried to install a calculator app and been asked to grant it access to your smartphone’s camera, microphone, location, contact list, email, etc, etc, etc? Have you felt the app doesn’t really need to violate your privacy so thoroughly? Have you had a chance to argue your point with its makers?

No, you didn’t; so you just clicked ACCEPT and moved on with your life.

Accepting such draconian requests has become the new version of clicking acceptance of a EULA on an old-style software program: you never read the darn thing (who could?), and you ignore the endless legalese in it.

With the exponentially growing APPification of our lives, and the growing ability of Google and other platforms to know and correlate everything we do, this inability to stay on top of the privacy of our mobile activity will eventually reach a real crisis point. I speculate that the best chance we have of solving this problem is the application of Artificial Intelligence technology to manage all those apps for us.



AI has long since stopped being about super-intelligent computers taking over our world (or our pod bay doors). Instead, it’s about all the countless devices around us acting ever more smartly to help us in our day-to-day life; and the personal assistants in our handhelds – like Siri, or Cortana – are evolving steadily to apply their smarts to better serve us. So if they want to help, the privacy issue I’m talking about is a good place to do so.

Here’s my vision in this space: I’d like the intelligence built into my device to protect and serve me by balancing my functionality needs with my privacy expectations. And the operative word here is MY. Every person has different preferences where privacy is concerned: some of us are obsessive about it, others don’t care, and most are somewhere in between – where exactly is what varies for each person. What I want the intelligent agent to do is to represent me in the negotiation; and to do so it would need to know my wishes. Better yet, it should know my philosophy, my ideology, and world view where privacy is concerned: do I care? How much? Under what circumstances would I be willing to give in despite caring, or the converse? Once the AI agent understood all that, it could really act on my behalf, not because I told it explicitly what to do in each case (that is well within existing capability of course) but because it would know how I think. Not “Nathan instructed me to never allow access to his camera”, but “Knowing Nathan, he would be uneasy allowing camera access to an app, though I think in this particular case he’d be OK with it because of your reputation and because he really needs the benefit you offer in return”.

Of course, this would also require the app developers to change their attitude. Instead of churning out solutions that propose an all-or-nothing waiver of privacy, where you either accept or forgo to use the app, they should provide tools that gracefully degrade their capabilities the fewer features of the phone you grant them access to. An app like that would be able to provide the AI agent with a variety of options to mix and match as it goes about representing your wishes. And it is possible that we’d need a standard for how apps can handle privacy – though not necessarily, since the AI agent may be able to get along even without a standard. That’s why it’s intelligent, after all…

More challenging is the task of getting the AI agent to get a feel for the user’s world view, so it can deduce that user’s choices in specific cases and become trustworthy. For the time being this challenge rests with AI researchers, and I’m sure they will enjoy solving it.

The situation gets even more interesting when we throw in the privacy aspects of Internet of Things (IoT) communications; take a look at this interesting post by Eran Abramson to see what I mean.


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Nathan Zeldes
Nathan Zeldes

Nathan Zeldes is a globally recognized thought leader in the search for improved knowledge worker productivity. After a 26 year career as a manager and principal engineer at Intel Corporation, he now helps organizations solve core problems at the intersection of information technology and human behavior.

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