Inside 1to1:Privacy

Creators of Cutting-Edge Technologies Thinking Privacy

December 8, 2011

By Jennifer L. Saunders, CIPP

For privacy professionals, the concept of building privacy protection in from the earliest development stages of a program or product has become a key focus, as evidenced by the widespread adoption of Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian's Privacy By Design, which espouses making smart privacy choices from the very start to avoid breach-related headaches later in the process.
But what about innovators whose first focus might not be about protecting user privacy? At a recent Online News Association (ONA) conference, it was clear that those whose primary work does not specifically involve data protection are thinking about the potential privacy issues around the personal information they may gather in the course of business or research practices.

At the event, for example, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Prof. Rosalind W. Picard, co-founder of Affectiva, hosted a presentation on the company's cutting-edge software to gauge emotional responses to images, advertisements and other stimuli. Earlier this year, Forbes reported on Affectiva and the work of the MIT Media Lab team, equating it to "teaching computers how to read human facial expressions" with an application that "is the world's first cloud-based technology for reading facial expressions."

The technology was first used in an effort to help people with autism better read other people's emotions, Picard explained, and is now seen as having potential business benefits as well--as a tool to help marketers and businesses gauge customer reactions to their products and services.

From weighing emotion based on facial responses as read through a webcam to measuring heart rates, the technology has the potential to objectively assess consumers' responses to advertisements and put those reactions into a form that can be shared as a marketing tool. In addition, the use of such technology to analyze nervous system responses to varied stimuli could have medical research value as well. With emerging technologies ranging from the "CardioCam" to gauge heart rates and the facial recognition technology already in place, she noted that the potential for marketing goes beyond simply tracking how many people visited a site or viewed an advertisement.

"We've not only got the clicks, we've got the eyeballs...we've got the brows raised," she explained at the ONA event.

That being said, Picard acknowledged, there are challenges and concerns around the use of such technology--including impacts on consumer privacy.

In terms of privacy, one key element mentioned was being sure to track reactions without collecting identifying information.

Or, as she asked attendees at her ONA conference session to consider, "Do you need to be HIPAA-compliant if your webcam is suddenly measuring heart rates and sharing that information with other people?"