Americans deserve greater transparency from Big Tech

After each new scandal exposing how Big Tech invades user privacy, both Democrats and Republicans demand reform and accountability. Yet so far, this has had little impact in changing their behavior. Americans continue to wait for Washington to address the omnipresent tech giants’ routine misuse and weaponization of our data.

As Congress returns soon, one can’t help but wonder if our representatives have come to grips with a future where their constituents’ everyday life is dominated by a small handful of privacy-invading corporations.

Polling shows it’s a huge concern for voters, with 91 percent of Americans believing that people have “lost control” over the use of personal data by businesses, and two-thirds of Americans demanding policymakers to do more to protect our privacy.

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“What is touching most Americans is that companies like Amazon and Google are persuading millions of Americans to put surveillance devices into their homes; devices like Echo that are capable of recording and eavesdropping on the kinds of communications that we have,” says Ben Wizner, director of ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project and Edward Snowden’s lead attorney.

Recent reports show this is not mere paranoia. According to Vice News, Microsoft – not usually associated with the voracious privacy violations of Google and Amazon – listened into conversations occurring on its video game platform, Xbox, and in some cases, recorded these interactions. The intrusion was carried out by contractors and oftentimes involved listening to and recording children.

Vice’s Motherboard previously reported that human contractors were also listening to Skype calls and audio recorded by Cortana, Microsoft’s virtual assistant. It’s still unclear who these outside contractors are exactly, or whether there is any vetting process to ensure that the freelancers listening to Americans don’t have criminal records.

Microsoft is hardly the only culprit though. The practice of snooping and recording us in our homes, often by contractors making as little as $10, takes place at Amazon, Google and Apple too. Just this week, Bloomberg reported that Apple will stop storing audio recordings from Siri interactions, and will no longer use outside contractors to review the recordings. For Microsoft though, it appears to be business as usual. The company simply tweaked its terms of service to disclose that outside contractors will continue to listen in on our online conversations.

All of which raises an important question: As Congress wrestles with policies to limit tech monopolies’ privacy invasion, should issues like home surveillance, snooping on minors and worker background checks be part of that discussion? And, isn’t it time to demand legislation and legal recourse rather than Big Tech’s toothless promises of industry “self-regulation”?

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It’s time for Congress to require tech companies to submit to a handful of reasonable requirements regarding its listening habits on our private conversations.

First, any company that listens to or records consumers either through in-home assistants, apps, or gaming consoles should post clear information regarding its practices and exactly who is doing the collecting. This should be more akin to front-of-package labeling than fine print, and should be clear on the use of contractors. We should know what entities employees or contractors work for and what background checks take place before they can listen to us – and our children – in our homes.

Next, lawmakers should convene a hearing this fall to understand how tech companies differentiate between children and adults. Like past efforts to govern advertising, tech companies must not be allowed to monitor, target, sell to, or generally take advantage of children through deceptive tactics. If they have improperly taken data from children, the Federal Trade Commission must take strong action for violations of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

Last, Congress should continue its comprehensive work on privacy legislation, modernizing outdated laws to recognize the convergence of technology. America needs a platform-neutral policy that does not pick winners and losers based on traditional definitions of Internet providers versus edge providers versus e-commerce companies. These industries are all trafficking data for profit and all run the risk of abusing American’s data rights. They should be treated equally as a result.

Stacie D. Rumenap is president of Stop Child Predators