From Virtual Assistants to AI: Data Privacy Issues in the Digital Age

Tan, William, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Earle, Joshua, University of Virginia

In recent years, the issue of data privacy has become increasingly prominent in discussions surrounding technology and society. As individuals continue to rely on digital platforms and services for a wide range of activities, from communication and entertainment to education and work, the amount of personal data being collected, processed, and stored has grown exponentially. This has raised concerns about the ways in which this data is being used and the potential for it to be misused or abused. My research paper examines this issue from the perspective of a social contract framework, which emphasizes the importance of informed consent and the right to exit. In this framework, individuals are seen as active participants in the creation and maintenance of the social structures and systems that govern their lives, and their consent is required for these structures to operate justly and effectively. Additionally, individuals have the right to opt out of these systems if they feel that their interests or values are not being represented or respected.

However, my examination of the digital world today reveals that these two primary concerns of informed consent and the right to exit are being violated in an alarming fashion. As people become increasingly interconnected and use both virtual assistants and artificial intelligence, the amount of personal data and information they unknowingly surrender can be staggering. While concerns arose over the early pioneers of virtual assistants, such as Siri and Alex, these issues have only become more pronounced as the years go by, as demonstrated by controversy after controversy. Users’ data is often collected without individuals' knowledge or consent and used for a variety of purposes, including targeted advertising, surveillance, and even political manipulation, as documented in the cases of Clearview AI and Cambridge Analytica. Their data can even fall into the wrong hands in data breaches, giving bad actors an ability to do significant amounts of damage.

Furthermore, even when individuals are aware of the data being collected and have the option to opt out, the process can be complex, confusing, and time-consuming. This can effectively limit their ability to exercise their right to exit, particularly for those who lack the resources or technical knowledge to navigate the complex digital landscape. Overall, my research paper highlights the urgent need for a renewed focus on the principles of informed consent and the right to exit in the digital age. By prioritizing these principles and ensuring that they are upheld in practice, we can work towards creating a more just and equitable digital society that respects the privacy and autonomy of all individuals.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
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