Sandra Wants Your Data


Sandra Wants Your Data

I had prepared as best I could for the 12-hour drive home from my son’s Boy Scout camp in Colorado. Hours of audiobooks and podcasts would be my muse, keeping me alert while transporting 15 teenage kids back to their trusting parents. A newly released pod-drama commanded my study that Saturday morning the likes of hits such as “Limetown” and “Homecoming” had previously.

Sandra,” starring Kristen Wiig and Alia Shawkat, was released by Gimlet Media on April 18, 2018, in an all-episodes-at-once offering. Listening to an audio-fiction podcast likens images of families gathered around a dresser-sized RCA on Sunday evening, intently focusing on the voice of Orson Wells as he dramatizes impending doom for cities all across the country. While the likelihood of mass hysteria is next to null, the entertainment delivered by these modern digital dramas will undoubtedly captivate and delight.

“Sandra” is the story of small-town America meets Silicon Valley when Helen starts her new job at Orbital Teledynamics and becomes the voice and brain behind Sandra, an Alexa, Siri, Google-like intelligent personal assistant. It is quickly revealed that the Sandra assistant is actually a conglomeration of humans, each versed in an extremely specific topic. When a user asks a question about birds, for instance (Helen’s area of knowledge), the session is routed to a specific, not-so-artificially-intelligent human to answer the query. The voice of the human counterpart is digitized and sent to the user allowing them to believe they are speaking with a computer, not a woman from Guymon, Oklahoma, sitting in a massive facility in the great Panhandle plains of the central United States.

Highway Outside of Guymon, OK

Above: The lonely highway just outside of Guymon.

Helen, turns out, has an incredible ability to not only answer questions about birds but to develop a relationship with the user she is conversing with. This is encouraged by her mentor/manager because it ironically humanizes the computerized assistant to the customers leading to more acceptance and ultimately, more data collection. And that right there is why I am even talking about a podcast on an information technology blog.

As it turns out, data collection is the modus operandi of Orbital Teledynamics. Each time a user purchases something at a store, each time they travel to a new city, each time they search for something on the internet, that data is collected and stored. This affords OT unique vision into a user’s life and habits and shapes the storyline of “Sandra” going forward. In an attempt to avoid several spoilers, Helen violates the one rule of OT: Never INITIATE the communication with the user. She is only allowed to receive user-originated connections. When she reaches out to the former girlfriend of a user on her own accord, a series of events are triggered that bring into question how the data collected by the companies should and is used to control our lives.

Sound Familiar? Think GDPR.

No doubt your email inbox has been flooded with privacy policy updates over the last month or more in response to GDPR, the General Data Protection Regulation. The GDPR forms part of the data protection regime in the United Kingdom, all part of the Data Protection Act of 2018. Essentially, the GDPR was conceived to give individuals in the European Union certain protections in regard to personally identifiable information, or PII. All personal data collected by a company or entity must be clearly disclosed as well as how long the data will be retained by that company, how it is shared with third-parties, and their ultimate purpose for collecting and housing that data.

Undoubtedly, you have received GDPR updates to privacy policies and you do not live in the European Union. Most companies find it easier to update their policy in a more general sense rather than have specific documents for Europe and other countries. If you received a GDPR update, that company most likely does work in the EU, and you are reaping the benefit of the more open model of data disclosure.

Each time you search the web, each time you summon your Echo or activate Siri, you are handing over information to the companies that provide those services to you. It is no mystery that Facebook and Google can and do provide their services for “free” because they are using our data for their monetarily gain! Targeted ads and suggestions are just on the surface of what can and is most likely being done with our data.

Here’s What You Can Do

We are in a unique time with the GDPR, and I want to encourage you to take advantage of this window. Go back through your email trash and find the privacy policy update emails that you previously ignored. If you received one from a company, your email is on file. Determine if you need that service any longer and if not, contact the company to remove or close your account. If you feel a company has or is doing something illicit with your personal data, you have the right to request erasure of your data. All of the details must be laid out in the updated privacy policy. Take the time to read the privacy policies and see what information is being collected from you and what is being done with it. Make the determination if it is worth the price.

Data is a massive industry and is only going to grow. Here at InterWorks, we consider ourselves a data company because we assist companies with storing, harvesting and visualizing data in the technology world. We are also all users of technology that do not wish to see our personal information end up in the hands of someone who wishes us harm. While regulations may change, it is still on you, the consumer of the service, to protect yourself. Be familiar with how your data is being used by companies and consider that each time you sign up for a “free” service, there is most assuredly a cost hidden in the fine print.

More About the Author

Scott Matlock

IT Lead and Training Coordinator
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