Jan was happily relaxing over cat videos with her third latte of the day, when her phone lit up with an email from Mark, someone she’d never met: something to do with an exciting business opportunity, so she ignored it. And a moment later, a second email, which freaks her out:
Hi Jan, just saw you’re in the coffee shop on Front Street. I’ll see you there in two minutes — I need a word with you.
WTF? She saw from the message he was using an email service that tracked the location of anyone reading one of their emails. Grabbing her coffee, she quickly left through the back entrance.
Fiction? Or reality? Superhuman recently introduced an email service that tracked email opens and gave the sender the city location where you opened it. Following privacy concerns, they have since withdrawn this feature. But web beacon services continue to make privacy intrusions like this key features for commercial products.
Any business, especially a startup trying to break into a market, can be tempted to use these tactics. If they have funding, they need to deliver a fast return. Zuckerberg’s “move fast and break things” might have originally targeted internal processes and management, but it also fractures the customer experience, and in Facebook’s case, social norms too. Collecting data to refine a product quickly becomes an opportunity to out-compete by breaking privacy. Psychographics might start as a tool to improve marketing, but can lead to psychologically profiling people without consent. All too often our shiny new tools can have a darker and hidden side, where non-customers are tracked and manipulated with the illusion of consent.
There is another way. When we founded Turalt, on the very first day, we decided we’d never be like this. We love the concept of an “ethical trajectory”, and we chose ours early. Founded on privacy by design, and strong commitments to the ethical use of psychology and AI, it is hard but worthwhile. We value your privacy so much, we run as much of our technology as we can within your own systems. We don’t sell your data — after all, it isn’t ours to sell: it’s yours! This still demands constant vigilance: we can still be unethical if we are not mindful of the risks. But, it is the right thing to do.
As a founder, as an investor, even as a customer, you have a choice. What are you willing to do to create or use that service? Where do you draw that line? And what if I told you that you didn’t have to give it all up? It is possible to add value, to innovate, and even to disrupt, without stretching social norms past their breaking point.
Dr Chris McKillop has a degree in artificial intelligence and a PhD in educational technology. She is an experienced researcher skilled in analyzing language for insights into people’s experiences.
Dr Stuart Watt has a PhD in the psychology of social intelligence and has developed technologies that use psychological insights into organizational processes to improve email practice.
They are founders of Turalt, a proudly female-led Toronto-based AI company building feedback and analytic tools based on AI, psycholinguistics, and psychometrics to solve online miscommunication in business.
Image © waldemarus at 123RF Stock Photo, used with permission.