'Opt Out' Is Useless. Let People Opt In

Like Google and Amazon before it, Apple has been caught sending voice assistant recordings to contractors, who listen to snippets of your requests and conversations, without telling anyone. In response to the privacy concerns that raises, Apple says it will eventually give users control over whether their Siri data gets sent to third-party eavesdroppers, but it's unclear whether that consent will be opt-in or opt-out. Google and Amazon offer the latter. And it's not nearly good enough.

Letting people opt out of data collection is better than not giving them any choice at all. But for decades, that’s been the extent of the conversation. It gives too many giant tech companies plausible deniability for the rampant hoovering of your personal information and allows them to implicitly blame the victim when they overreach: Don’t get angry at us, you could have opted out this whole time. Here’s a simple suggestion: Let people opt in, instead.

Optimus Prime

It’s a simple problem to explain. An “opt out” paradigm means that data collection happens automatically, and you have to actively seek out ways to stop it. Under “opt in,” you must affirmatively grant a company the right to access that data before it can do so. You’re in control from the start.

"Not only do opt-in mechanisms serve consumers better, they serve democracy better."

Joseph Tomain, Indiana University

Right now it’s unclear what form Apple’s Siri opt-out will take; the company has suspended its voice data collection temporarily and says only that once it resumes, “users will have the ability to choose to participate.” Apple didn’t respond to a request for more specific information.

But to illustrate the limits of opt-out options, look no further than Amazon’s Alexa, which already has a mechanism by which you can say “no thanks” to strangers listening to your commands. Ready for it? Open the Alexa app. Tap the three dots in the upper-left corner. Then go to Settings. Then go to Alexa account. Then go to Alexa privacy. Then go to Manage how your data improves Alexa. Then switch Help develop new features to off. Then set the toggle under Use messages to improve transcriptions to off. Theseus had an easier time escaping the Minotaur.

This critique applies much more broadly than to just voice assistants, of course. Facebook is the undisputed master of the art. Nor is it a new concern; dig into the WIRED archives and you’ll find headlines like “Survey: Opt-Out Is a Cop-Out” from nearly two decades ago. Take that as an indicator not of mustiness of the argument but of how long this problem has festered, and how little progress has been made.

“Not only do opt-in mechanisms serve consumers better, they serve democracy better. They do that by helping reduce the imbalance of power between companies and individual human beings,” says Joseph Tomain, a senior fellow at Indiana University’s Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research. “The information that is collected about us collects our human agency, and autonomy, and human dignity in ways we shouldn’t lose track of.”

That balance has shifted ever so slightly for the better in recent years, particularly with Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation. That’s the reason so many websites you visit now tell you that they use cookies to collect data about your browsing activity. It’s a small step but one that at the very least reminds you that tracking measures are pervasive across the web and of the option not to accept them. If companies had to more fully explain themselves—if Apple told you that it wanted to play your Siri snippets to third-party contractors—maybe they wouldn’t overreach quite so often in the first place.

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