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Design & Technology October 16, 2019

Unreadable by default: how terms & conditions are working against the user

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Digital services of all kinds have become a very natural part of our daily life. Applications are either helpful, entertaining, or solve profound issues for us. For the most part, these tools make our lives easier, better, and more convenient. But we often forget that convenience comes at a price. Somewhere in the back of our heads, we know it, but too often we don’t even think about it. The price we are paying for convenience is allowing everyone easy access to our data.

Finn Lützow-Holm Myrstad is working for the Norwegian Consumer Council. He is one of the loudest voices out there when it comes to fighting for consumer rights in the digital context. During Dept Festival, he talked about the work he and his team are doing to combat the misuse of data.

Testing our reading skills

Finn and his team came up with an experiment to showcase that it is impossible for an average user to read all the terms and conditions of all the apps they are using. They estimated that, on average, people use around thirty applications on their phones on a regular basis. So they printed out the terms of those apps, to visualize the sheer amount of text one would have to read. His team then proceed to read through all the printed terms, which took more than thirty hours, even with several people. And keep in mind this text is not an easy read. So the conclusion is very clear: the terms and conditions are not meant to be read, they are made to be unreadable.

But it doesn’t end here. The terms and conditions are one thing, but app settings are another tangled web that needs to be navigated carefully. As an example, Finn downloaded a dating application. He discovered that the app had a pre-checked box somewhere hidden in the settings allowing all of the user’s Facebook pics to be transferred to the app – including full rights for usage, duplication, etc. He and his team filed a complaint about this in Norway, and as a direct consequence, the terms of the app were changed globally.

What this shows was that finding out how an app really uses your data is very tricky. Signing up or setting up an app is easy, just a few clicks, and you’re done. However, understanding how an application uses your data is almost impossible because those options are not easily found. And publishers count on users not being informed about how apps use their data because it gives them more freedom to do as they wish.

Voice recognition has flaws too

But there’s more. Finn and his team also delved into voice recognition data and technology. Take ‘Cayla’, a voice recognition doll that is connected to Wikipedia, whose goal is to help children further their learning. It’s very easy to connect Cayla to a Bluetooth system, such as your phone, take control of Cayla and talk directly to kids.

But what if a stranger outside of your household connected to the doll, they too could talk to your kids. This discovery made headlines globally and unfortunately showcases how your data can be misused in a lot of different ways.

The use of data

Overall, it is understandable that applications need some information to offer us a free service. But what consumers want is to no longer feel deceived by how publishers use our personal information. Thus, Finn has an easy solution for the publishers and developers of the future.

He suggests making processes more transparent. By offering more transparent processes, your application can stand out from the crowd by being the first to jump on this bandwagon, and you can capitalize on this unique selling point.

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