In an era when laptops take pictures, phones track your movements, and digital assistants listen for instructions at home, people are increasingly worried about the sensors they are letting into their lives.
“If you see how many users are doing things like putting tape over the cameras on their laptops, that suggests there's something we can do to help them feel more comfortable,” says Mary Baker, a senior researcher in HP’s Immersive Experiences Lab.
In response, Baker has been leading an effort at HP Labs to understand what exactly people are concerned about when it comes to interacting with today’s digital devices and to imagine ways in which those concerns might be addressed.
She began with a survey of HP consumers from a wide range of backgrounds, asking them to describe their attitudes to the smart digital assistants that are gaining in popularity with families across the world.
“To me that was a good place to focus because it's a new technology, so a lot of people are thinking about why they might or might not want to adopt it,” Baker notes. “What I found was that while the top reason for not buying an assistant was because people weren’t sure they really needed one, the second biggest was all about security and privacy – the word “creepy” came up in lots of the comments.”
Indeed, it became clear that many people worry that these devices are enabling something or someone to listen in on them or see them without their knowledge.
That spurred a follow-on study where Baker interviewed a smaller group of users in depth about their attitudes to sensing technologies and challenged them to create simple prototypes of devices that would assuage their concerns.
“We wanted to know what it might take for people to just look at a device and know intuitively how private they are with respect to it,” says Baker. “Is it obvious to them how they would control it? Can they trust those indicators and controls?”
Significantly, interviewees felt that an LED “recording” indicator was not something they were able to trust. Instead, they preferred solutions that physically blocked or separated a sensor from a device to indicate that it was not currently in use.
“So while tech companies spend a lot of time trying to hide sensors, users might prefer us to make their behavior more obvious,” Baker suggests.