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Thought Leadership

Usability vs. Privacy—Keeping Things in Balance

By February 13, 2018 No Comments

If you look at my background you’ll see that I’ve been an advocate for an open and accessible Internet for a long time.  When I founded Lawrence Freenet the idea was to build a WiFi mesh network that was accessible to everyone, regardless of income.  Over time this commitment has expanded to include concepts like net neutrality, reflective capacity and, recently, user privacy.

Big internet service providers, online services, and social networks are all trying to tell you the same story about user privacy.  The story goes like this:

“To give you great service, we need all of your data.”

“We’ll keep it private (except from advertisers, government inquiries, curious employees and random hackers.) We promise!”

Here is the thing. The story they are telling you? It isn’t true.  

You don’t need to give Big Tech all of your private and personal data just to access great services. In fact, most of these companies can provide you with great service even without your personal data. The reality is that they make far more money from your attention when they know everything about you, so for them, it is business.

Take the search engine DuckDuckGo for example. I spoke to their CEO last week and I can tell you this….they are serious about privacy.  Does this impact their search results? Nope. I can search for “Mycroft Mark II Kickstarter” on DuckDuckGo and get results that are nearly identical to Google. The difference? DuckDuckGo won’t use that search data to track me across the Internet. I won’t see an advertisement for the Mark II on every website I visit. I won’t be targeted, I won’t be sold, and I won’t be monetized.

At Mycroft, we are embracing this concept—the concept that you can still get a great user experience without sacrificing privacy.

Frankly it isn’t that hard. Instead of capturing data from all of our users indiscriminately, we only use data from users who have explicitly opted it. We are also building tools that use voluntary contributions instead of collected data. Tools like the ones at These tools allow us to collect data to improve Mycroft’s technology without gathering private data on our users.

And if you choose not to opt-in to our open data set it has no effect on your user experience with the Mycroft voice platform. Queries and commands are handled as they come in, and the data from users that opted-in remains in an entirely different section of the system. So how does Mycroft work without storing heaps of user data?

As the diagram highlights below, it pings apps and skills anonymously.

Mycroft Data Flow

As voice assistant technologies like Mycroft become a bigger part of our lives I encourage you to think carefully about the data they are generating and how it is used.  Do you really want Big Tech to know everything about you?  Are you comfortable letting them listen in your kitchen?  Your office?  Your bedroom?  Do they have your best interests at heart?  If the answer to these questions is “yes” then, by all means, use a solution from a Silicon Valley Giant.  

For everyone else? Use Mycroft.