How are you addressing privacy at work? Chances are, unless you're handing a lot of credit card volume or you work in healthcare, it's not exactly top of mind. It will be. Most companies are going to have to get comfortable fast with their ethics on privacy, all thanks to new technologies like image recognition available metered on demand by cloud services like AWS. 

Google, Amazon, and Microsoft have all faced recent employee protests, resignations, and public letters highlighting their actions --or lack of-- around privacy boundaries thanks to cloud technologies.  The logical deduction is that your stance and your company's stances on digital privacy will soon be a major driver of your business reputation. 

Swimming through the fluid digital privacy frontier

Case in point: Amazon recently hit the headlines when Alexa emailed a private conversation between a wife and husband to one of their contacts. Now they're again in the headlines for powering police surveillance of private citizens through Rekognition. The Amazon Web Services tool Rekognition isn't a dark web spy kit.  It's a robust image neural network on demand. It can read menus into text--or for that matter, photos of contracts on the table in a private war room into text. It can identify people from images. It can read facial expressions and identify emotional intent.

From here to Hilter in a few clicks?

The service isn't evil. The applications built with it could be, suggested some Amazonians in a letter they sent to Jeff Bezos. "We learn from history, and we understand how IBM's systems were employed in the 1940s to help Hitler. IBM did not take responsibility then, and by the time their role was understood, it was too late. We will not let that happen again. The time to act is now," the letter reads in part. 

When asked for comment by Fortune recently, Amazon pointed to a blog post by Dr. Matt Wood, their general manager of artificial intelligence at AWS.  Fortune reported Wood as writing, "we believe it is the wrong approach to impose a ban on promising new technologies because they might be used by bad actors for nefarious purposes in the future."  

Earlier responding to Forbes, Wood laid out that Amazon's acceptable use policy requires users not compromise the rights of others--but Amazon fails to have a way today to test or validate that users are complying with the AUP outside of court.

Fed up with lack of privacy leadership

Microsoft employees are lobbying CEO Satya Nadella to cancel their services to Immigration and Naturalization. His response was, "Microsoft is not working with the U.S. government on any projects related to separating children from their families at the border. Our current cloud engagement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is supporting legacy mail, calendar, messaging and document management workloads."

For most organizations, mail, calendars, messages, and documents are the actual infrastructure of the organization, so Nadella's response comes across as too trusting. Microsoft may find itself in the same position as Google, which was forced to react to months of employee protests, including some resignations, about using their image AI platform for military drone strike refinement. Diane Green, CEO of Google Cloud, also just announced a set of principles that will govern Google's cloud business going forward. 

Privacy is the new frontier for company values.

AI technologies have crossed into the capacity to cause irreparable harm.Regulating dangerous physical activities and substances, from drugs to explosives to weapons to gene therapies, is a part of the legal environment.  Every day there are lines in your business and work life around privacy, including

  • the companies you support with your dollars,
  • the firms you rely on for infrastructure, and
  • how you build your infrastructure for your teams and customers.

The commitments you make to your team and to your customers are likely in need of an update regarding privacy disruption and your company's stance. It wasn't necessary when the privacy border was physical, but today, it's digital.

Privacy policy isn't the purview of big tech companies--it's yours.

If there is one you can take-away from the recent headlines on the destruction of the expectation of privacy, it is that the digital privacy frontier is shredded. While that can sound scary, consider the opportunity it provides for you to distinguish yourself, and your company, as a leader. We're going to have to build even stronger ethics, standards, and principles around how we use new technologies. That's important -- way too important to leave in the hands of companies who are often paid the most by those who have the fewest inhibitions. The privacy debate offers every company, not just the big tech ones, the opportunity to show their core values and create a differentiated culture.

Published on: Jun 25, 2018
The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of