Tell the users what you are doing

flat-3252983_1280Photo storage company Ever got in trouble because it turns out, along with their cloud photo library business, they also use the photos people are uploading to train facial recognition AI that they sell for military applications.

(Side note – I’m amazed companies like this still exist, when Google and Apple are so good at this and come pre-installed on your phone. I’m really curious why people buy these other services.)

Short summary: the company says “it says we do this in our user agreement,” people are pissed.

When this was revealed, I’m sure that the image that came into people’s minds was pictures of their babies and grandmothers being pored over by soldiers and military contractors using death machines. This is probably not the case. I suspect that Ever is using the photos to train algorithms (people are giving them lots of photos of the same people in all kinds of different situations) and then selling the results (without baby pictures) for use in military facial application algorithms. Which doesn’t make everything okay, but does point to something important: people are a lot more cool about what you do with their data if you tell them about it. Leave them to imagine the worst case, and that’s what they’ll do.

The “it was in the user agreement” is a stupid excuse. The user agreement was 2,500 words long, which is not bad by user agreement standards, but not exactly short; and of course it’s written in dense legalese. The reality is that tech companies have trained users to fly right past user agreements because there is actually no way anybody can read them all, and so the whole thing is a rigged game.

But here’s what Ever could have done: just told people in plain English what they do. “What do we do with your data? We use your photos to build artificial intelligence algorithms that recognize faces. This lets us give you facial recognition features. We also sell the resulting AI to other companies, but that doesn’t include the photos we use to train it.”

I think most people would actually think, “Oh, OK” and continue on from that.

But instead Ever buried it in an agreement, apparently hoping nobody would notice, and when they did, was left with a PR mess.

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