ChatGPT is exciting, but Microsoft’s influence is cause for concern

The Artificial Intelligence dream has landed in our everyday lives, and the ethical discussions around AI have ramped up as a consequence, especially concerning how much data these AI services are collecting from users. After all, where there is mass storage of possibly sensitive information, there are cybersecurity and privacy concerns. 

Microsoft’s Bing search engine, which is newly equipped with OpenAI’s ChatGPT, and is currently being rolled out, has brought its own set of concerns, as Microsoft hasn’t had the best track record when it comes to respecting its customers’ privacy.

Microsoft has occasionally been challenged about its management and access to user data, although notably less so than its contemporaries like Apple, Google, and Facebook, even though it deals in a great deal of user information – including when it sells targeted ads. 

It’s been targeted by certain government regulatory bodies and organizations, such as when France demanded that Microsoft ceases tracking users through Windows 10, and the company responded with a set of comprehensive measures. 

Jennifer King, director of consumer privacy at the Center for Internet and Society Stanford Law School, speculated that this is partly due to Microsoft’s longstanding position both in its respective market and long-time relationships with governments afforded to it because of its legacy. It has more experience when dealing with regulators, so might have avoided the same level of scrutiny as its competitors.

An influx of data

Microsoft, as well as other companies, is now finding itself having to react to a mass influx of user chat data due to the popularity of chatbots like ChatGPT. According to the Telegraph, Microsoft has reviewers who analyze user submissions to limit harm and respond to potentially dangerous user inputs by combing through user conversation logs with the chatbot and stepping in to moderate “inappropriate behavior.” 

The company claims that it strips submissions of personal information, users' chat texts are only accessible to certain reviewers, and these efforts protect users even when their conversations with the chatbot are under review.

A Microsoft spokesperson elaborated that it employs both automated review efforts (as there is a great deal of data to comb through) and manual reviewers. It goes on to state that this is the standard for search engines, and is also included in Microsoft’s privacy statement. 

The spokesperson is at pains to reassure those concerned that Microsoft employs industry-standard user privacy measures such as “pseudonymization, encryption at rest, secured and approved data access management, and data retention procedures.” 

Additionally, the reviewers can only view user data on the basis of “a verified business need only, and not any third parties.” Microsoft has since updated its privacy statement to summarize and clarify the above – user information is being collected and human employees at Microsoft may be able to see it.

Under the spotlight

Microsoft isn’t the only company under scrutiny over how it collects and handles user data when it comes to AI chatbots. OpenAI, the company that created ChatGPT, also disclosed that it reviews user conversations. 

Recently, the company behind Snapchat announced that it was introducing a chatbot equipped with ChatGPT that will resemble its already-familiar messenger chat format. It has warned users not to submit personal sensitive information, possibly for similar reasons. 

These concerns are multiplied when considering the usage of ChatGPT and ChatGPT-equipped bots by those working at companies with their own sensitive and confidential information, many of which have warned employees not to submit confidential company information into these chatbots. Some companies, such as JP Morgan and Amazon, have restricted or banned their use at work altogether. 

Personal user data has been, and continues to be, a key issue in tech in general. Misuse of data, or even malicious use of data, can have dire consequences both for individual people and for organizations. With every introduction of a new technology, these risks are increased – but so is the potential reward. 

Tech companies would do well to pay extra attention to make sure our personal data is as secure as possible – or lose the trust of their customers and potentially kill off their fledgling AI ambitions.

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