The following essay is reprinted with permission from The Conversation, an online publication covering the latest research.
These are just part of a much wider societal problem of information overload. There is so much data stored – exabytes of it, as much stored as has ever been spoken by people in all of human history – that it’s humanly impossible to read and interpret everything. Often, we narrow down our pool of information by choosing particular topics or issues to pay attention to. But it’s important to actually know the meaning and contents of the legal documents that govern how our data is stored and who can see it.
As computer science researchers, we are working on ways artificial intelligence algorithms could digest these massive texts and extract their meaning, presenting it in terms regular people can understand.
Can computers understand text?
Computers store data as 0’s and 1’s – data that cannot be directly understood by humans. They interpret these data as instructions for displaying text, sound, images or videos that are meaningful to people. But can computers actually understand the language, not only presenting the words but also their meaning?
What if a computerized assistant could digest all that legal jargon in a few seconds and highlight key points? Perhaps a user could even tell the automated assistant to pay particular attention to certain issues, like when an email address is shared, or whether search engines can index personal posts. Companies could use this capability, too, to analyze contracts or other lengthy documents.
To do this sort of work, we need to combine a range of AI technologies, including machine learning algorithms that take in large amounts of data and independently identify connections among them; knowledge representation techniques to express and interpret facts and rules about the world; speech recognition systems to convert spoken language to text; and human language comprehension programs that process the text and its context to determine what the user is telling the system to do.
Examining privacy policies
A modern internet-enabled life today more or less requires trusting for-profit companies with private information (like physical and email addresses, credit card numbers and bank account details) and personal data (photos and videos, email messages and location information).
These companies’ cloud-based systems typically keep multiple copies of users’ data as part of backup plans to prevent service outages. That means there are more potential targets – each data center must be securely protected both physically and electronically. Of course, internet companies recognize customers’ concerns and employ security teams to protect users’ data. But the specific and detailed legal obligations they undertake to do that are found in their impenetrable privacy policies. No regular human – and perhaps even no single attorney – can truly understand them.
In our study, we ask computers to summarize the terms and conditions regular users say they agree to when they click “Accept” or “Agree” buttons for online services. We downloaded the publicly available privacy policies of various internet companies, including Amazon AWS, Facebook, Google, HP, Oracle, PayPal, Salesforce, Snapchat, Twitter and WhatsApp.
Our software examines the text and uses information extraction techniques to identify key information specifying the legal rights, obligations and prohibitions identified in the document. It also uses linguistic analysis to identify whether each rule applies to the service provider, the user or a third-party entity, such as advertisers and marketing companies. Then it presents that information in clear, direct, human-readable statements.
We also found, with the help of the summarizing system, that privacy policies often include rules for third parties – companies that aren’t the service provider or the user – that people might not even know are involved in data storage and retrieval.
The largest number of rules in privacy policies – 43 percent – apply to the company providing the service. Just under a quarter of the rules – 24 percent – create obligations for users and customers. The rest of the rules govern behavior by third-party services or corporate partners, or could not be categorized by our system.
The next time you click the “I Agree” button, be aware that you may be agreeing to share your data with other hidden companies who will be analyzing it.