Microsoft has published a new patent that reveals plans to watch everything you’re doing online under the guise of “proving better search results”.
The new patent is called “Query Formulation Via Task Continuum” and Microsoft say it aims to make searching more efficient by analyzing the extra user data it will provide.
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Since we use multiple apps for different purposes, but to complete one task, Microsoft plans to let these apps communicate with each other, using a mediating module.
“For example, if a user is researching the topic of “dancing” for school, the user will use a first application to write things down as well as a second application such as a browser, to search different styles of dancing. However, in existing systems, the two applications are completely disconnected from each other. The first application does not provide the browser implicit hints as to what the user might be seeking when there is a switch from the first application to the second application.”
While for the user it’s one task, applications treat them differently because they are disconnected. Microsoft is now patenting a solution by creating a mediating agent. The mediation module will be watching over what the user is doing in active OS and 3rd party applications, and then using that data to produce more focused search results “through the preferred search provider.”
But, what about user privacy?
In theory, it sounds exciting that something will make our workflow faster by helping us get through things quicker. Microsoft is also promising to remove the personally identifiable information from this data (or would require user consent). If there are no privacy concerns, and if pulled off successfully, it would actually make our lives a lot easier. But, it’s Microsoft that we are talking about.
Microsoft along with Google have a thing for data accumulation, and since both have been regulars at breaking promises with their users, it doesn’t always excite everyone when a new technology is revealed. Even if the company manages to design it perfectly (and not another annoying Clippy-thing) and actually making it worthwhile to let Microsoft listen to our “diaries,” there are heavy privacy concerns associated with how it works. But, Microsoft could also choose to handle privacy issues the right way.
For starters the company could – and should – make it an opt-in system and not another toggle that’s enabled by default. Microsoft could also allow users more control over what applications can be accessed by the mediator and which ones are off-limits. Add in easy toggles to enable and disable it, and we might just have a winner here. Imagine, you start working on a document and toggle this feature on from the taskbar, let contextual search get you better results, finish off with fewer frustrations and more “actual” help from the search engines, and turn the feature off.
Looks good. Again, in theory.
Back in real life, it’s difficult to trust the tech giants to resist more user data. It reminds me of the latest Allo-dilemma. You are offered better assistance, more convenience, but you are to part ways with your privacy. With time, Microsoft might also demand to store this user data to offer better AI-powered search results, driving contexts from user’s interests or previously finished documents, images and other data. It’s early to say if, and how, the company will implement this technology. But, it certainly doesn’t look unlikely with recent focus on offering improved “personalized” computing to users.
Would you trade off your privacy for some make-your-life-easier features?