OTTAWA—The world’s lawmakers have a duty to protect children from being turned into “voodoo dolls” by the “surveillance capitalism” of major high-tech companies, says the Canadian chair of the international grand committee on big data, privacy, and democracy.
Conservative MP Bob Zimmer offered that summary as the multinational group of legislators wrapped its third and final day of hearings of Parliament Hill on Wednesday.
The committee is examining the role of internet giants in safeguarding privacy and democratic rights.
Over three days, the MPs have grilled representatives from Facebook, Amazon and other tech titans, and they lamented the fact the household names that head those and other organizations ignored requests to testify. They were replaced by lower-level officials who, in some cases, declined to answer questions because they said they didn’t have the big-picture knowledge of their celebrity bosses.
Zimmer said the hearings have been useful as he watches his own four children, aged 15 to 21, “getting more and more addicted to these phones.”
“When you see from surveillance capitalism, the whole drive, the whole business model is to keep them glued to that phone despite the bad health that brings to those children—our kids. It’s all for a buck,” said Zimmer. “We’re responsible to do something about that. We care about our kids. We don’t want to see them turned into voodoo dolls, to be controlled by the almighty dollar and capitalism.”
Liberal and New Democrat MPs on the committee shared that view in a rare show of domestic political unity. That was evident across international lines as well.
British MP Damian Collins, the committee co-chair, said the hearings have shown how the companies were “unwilling to answer direct questions about how they gather data and how they use it.”
That includes testimony by witnesses who couldn’t explain how Facebook and Amazon interact, or how data from the LinkedIn networking site and Microsoft (which bought it in 2016) are integrated, said Collins.
“I don’t understand why companies are unwilling to talk openly about the tools they put in place. People may consent to use these tools but do they understand the extent of the data they’re sharing when they do,” said Collins.
The privacy implications of one popular online tool came under scrutiny during Wednesday’s testimony.
A security executive for the internet-browser company Mozilla said he was shocked by the recordings of his family that were collected and retained by Amazon’s popular Alexa voice-activated interactive speakers.
Alan Davidson, Mozilla’s vice-president of global policy, trust and security, said the Amazon Echo, the hardware that runs the Alexa service, is a wonderful product but when he recently examined what his family had recorded and stored, he found the archive included conversations among his young children.
“I was shocked, honestly, and my family was shocked to see these recordings of our young children from years ago that are in the cloud and stored about us. It’s not to say that something was done wrong, or unlawfully,” Davidson said. “But users have no idea—they have no idea this data is out there and they don’t know how it’s going to be used in the future either.”
Internet companies need to give customers more “granular” consent options for how specific pieces of personal information are collected and used by high-tech companies, said Davidson.
Mark Ryland, a director in the office of the chief information security officer for Amazon Web Services, testified Amazon makes it very clear that consent is part of the Alexa experience, and that customers can delete any collected data if they like.
“Alexa is listening for a keyword—an ‘awake’ word—that alerts the system you want to interact with it in some fashion,” said Ryland. “There’s a light on the device that tells you it is active and subsequent sound in the room is then streamed to the cloud.”
That stream is then taken through a “language-processing system” that produces a transcript of the conversation, said Ryland.
“You can see a full list of what you’ve said; you can delete any one of those. Those will immediately get removed from the database,” he said. “I think it’s very clear, the consent is part of the experience.”
The Alexa-gathered information Amazon does store “becomes part of your account information just like if you were buying books on our website and therefore could influence” other things the company might present to a customer “that you might be interested in,” said Ryland.
Speaking to reporters afterward, Ryland said the company will “continue to publicize people’s ability to control their data.”
Asked whether the favours finer options for customer consent, Ryland said: “We’re always looking for customer feedback and how to improve our products, so absolutely we’re always looking to make improvements that meet customer needs.”