Zoom: In Hot Water Again


August 15, 2023

There’s an old but true tech saying: If the product is free, you are the product. Or something along those lines. Social media platforms and peer-to-peer payment services definitely fall into that category. And while there are ways to bolster your data privacy, they’re rarely if ever the default setting.

That’s true of the enormously popular virtual meeting platform Zoom, which recently landed in hot water over how it culls user data with the help of artificial intelligence. (One example is Zoom IQ Meeting Summary, an AI tool that “allows meeting hosts to initiate an AI-generated summary of their meeting powered by Zoom’s own large language models.”) Just add it to the pile of other privacy issues the company has grappled with (and been fined for), especially following a pandemic-driven Zoomplosion when many people were forced to work remotely.

As an NBC News report encapsulated the current situation, “In Section 10.4 of Zoom’s terms of service, updated in March, users agree to ‘grant Zoom a perpetual, worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicensable, and transferable license’ for various purposes, including ‘machine learning, artificial intelligence, training, testing, improvement of the Services, Software, or Zoom’s other products, services, and software, or any combination thereof.’”

There’s no way to opt-out, but “Zoom customers decide whether to enable generative AI features, and separately whether to share customer content with Zoom for product improvement purposes,” a Zoom spokesperson told NBC in a statement, noting the company had updated its terms of service “to further confirm that we will not use audio, video, or chat customer content to train our artificial intelligence models without your consent.”

coo and the customer experience

Not everyone believes it. As with numerous other tech companies, Zoom’s user data is nothing short of lifeblood. (Those “terms of service,” by the way, are purposely onerous. Here are Zoom’s, which one AI insider described as “super broad.” Enjoy.) Recently, for example, search giant Google updated its privacy policy with a clause that allows it to collect public data for AI training. And here’s how Meta uses AI-scraped user data. In short, everyone’s doing it. And for now, it’s still basically the Wild West out there in terms of laws that govern what can and can’t be done. As CBS News reported, “Privacy advocates… recommend steering clear from Zoom until the company provides more details into how users will give their informed consent, what data will be collected and how it will be used.”

Easier said than done considering how central Zoom has become to business communications. What’s really required, some experts say, are federal laws specifying how tech orgs can deploy AI when it comes to data collection and other applications. (Incidentally, only a dozen states have comprehensive data privacy laws on the books.) And while AI legislation is being developed on a national level, spearheaded in part by New York senator Chuck Schumer, it’s typically slow going.

According to a recent post on IAPP.org, the website of the International Association of Privacy Professionals, “Addressing privacy only in the context of AI ignores other important areas,” a recent post on IAPP.org noted. “AI tech, like large language models specifically, uses an immense amount of data — including sensitive data — scraped across the internet or provided to it, creating powerful tools for society, like generative AI. While AI will exponentially improve our society, these AI tools make it imperative that the U.S. protect all Americans’ data by passing a comprehensive federal privacy and security law rather than taking a piecemeal approach.”

In a Forbes Business Council article titled “How Generative AI Can Affect Your Business’ Data Privacy,” consultant Jodi Daniels detailed the privacy implications of Generative AI — the stuff of Google Bard and ChatGPT. Here’s a particularly unsettling revelation for those who don’t believe tech companies (like Google and Zoom — see above) when they promise not to use data from anyone who opts out:

“While its terms and conditions state that the program doesn’t use the information provided by its users, ChatGPT does collect IP addresses, browser types and settings—and it uses cookies to collect a user’s browsing activities over time, all of which it could share without notice with its vendors or third parties. Another privacy concern is that ChatGPT automatically opts everyone in. While ChatGPT states it provides an opt-out feature in its terms and conditions for user data collection, it also notes that opting out may limit the kind of answers users receive.”

But, Daniels added, it’s not like users aren’t warned.

“The ramifications of generative AI programs like ChatGPT will continue to emerge over the next decade,” she concluded. “Without a clear strategy that centers on privacy, businesses can put their profitability and reputation at risk.”

Getting back to the Zoom fracas, it has at the very least prompted more calls for closer scrutiny of how AI collects and deploys user-generated data. One of those calls is coming from Janet Haven, executive director of Data & Society and a member of the National AI Initiative advisory committee. She told NBC that concerns about Zoom are emblematic of a much larger problem.

“Regardless of what Zoom’s clarification was,” she said, “I think what that really raised in the public discourse was the level of discomfort that so many people have in recognizing that our laws don’t protect us against any kind of misuse of our data.”

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