Recently we’ve seen a range of legislation, both passed and proposed, creating rules to protect personal data captured by connected devices. These revolve around ways for consumers to delete such data, what companies can or can’t do with the data, and protecting private health information. We’ve also seen a walk-back from the Internal Revenue Service requiring that U.S. citizens provide biometric data, in the form of facial recognition, to access their federal tax information.
That’s all well and good considering there are already dozens of devices gathering this data today. But what about five years from now when we start to see more robots in our daily lives?
There aren’t any data protections in place for that future, perhaps because we don’t really know how the future will unfold. After all, how many people interact with some type of connected robotic device today? Not many, although it’s likely more than you realize. And who can predict how many of those interactions we’ll experience in a few short years?
Still, we should have learned a lesson by waiting until the IoT was already fairly prevalent in smart speakers and cameras before actually tackling a pro-consumer framework for data privacy. It would be smarter to build off of that framework now and extend it to future devices, such as robots.
Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t expect every home to have a robot in five years. I hope my home has one, but I’ve always been an early adopter. The real issue arises as more companies deploy robots in public places, such as airports, museums, and such.
Indeed, that’s exactly what caused me to think about this: An article about someone experiencing and watching robotic interactions at an airport in South Korea. That country is much like me in terms of early technology adoption. Note that this is a recollection of the situation from 2019:
Upon reaching its destination at the other side of the hall, it was apparent that the robot thought it had completed a task by leading a requester to a check-in counter, after which it started to roam aimlessly. Before I could get to the robot and figure out its controls, another woman walked up and scanned her boarding pass on the back of the robot. The robot displayed a new map on the rectangular screen on its back and led the woman back across the hall. Elsewhere in the airport, people were having their photo taken by these assistive robots—and providing their email addresses to get a copy of the photo.
This situation is very different from my having a personal robot in my home. If I did have one, I’d know what data it was collecting before I even purchased it. I’d have buy-in from my family and they would know the robot’s features, functions, and data collection methodology. The only real “risk” to private data being captured unknowingly here is when neighbors or friends come over. My guests don’t know anything about the robot’s data privacy policies, much like they don’t know the same for my connected cameras and speakers today. I think there’s still work to be done in that regard, but again, it’s a different situation.
When robots such as the one in the airport are in public spaces, we “ooh” and “ahh” over them and even approach this new technology to see what it’s all about. And we do so without thinking about what data is captured in those moments and what’s done with it.
How could we possibly know since we didn’t buy or deploy the robot? Where would we look up to see what data is being collected? It’s not as if we read any Terms of Service in the airport before asking the helpful robot for directions to our departure gate.
In fact, the author of the linked article attempted to find answers to those questions, only to run around in circles without finding those answers. The only information that surfaced was that LG made the robots.
This might all sound too much in the future, but look around. There are more and more companies using robots for services in public places. Just a few days ago during some travel, Stacey bought a coffee from a robotic barista, for example, even though it’s not a mobile one. And I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen Marty the robot at my local Giant supermarket. Yes, Marty: I’m watching you … watching me. But I bet you already knew that.
The point is, a future with robots in our daily lives isn’t that far away.
Until we work out rules and regulations surrounding the data captured by robots, my approach will be the same as it is in any public place: Assume that my likeness or my spoken words can be collected by a connected camera or microphone. Even this isn’t a real answer to the challenge though. I don’t know what sensors might be inside a robot collecting data that I wouldn’t expect.
Perhaps there are sensors that can detect my body temperature or predict my stress levels, for example. Paired with AI, that could suggest I’m agitated before a flight and give airport security a tip-off that I might be a troublemaker. In reality, I might just be jet-lagged and a little under the weather. And for all I know, Marty might be snapping my picture for a facial recognition database while I’m checking for the ripest mangoes during my weekly produce trip.
When it comes to robots, which often offer a sense of personal connection that can lower our guard, I could be providing more data that I realize without even knowing it. Whether we’re five years out from seeing more robots in our daily lives or we’re just around the corner from it, the time to deal with privacy protections is now.