Featured Article : Zoom Data Concerns

In this article, we look at why Zoom found itself as the subject of a backlash over an online update to its terms related to AI, what its response has been, plus what this says about how businesses feel about AI.

What Happened? 

Communications app Zoom updated its terms of service in March but following the change only being publicised on a popular forum in recent weeks, Zoom has faced criticism because many tech commentators have expressed alarm that the change appeared to go against its policy to not use customer-data to train AI.

The Update In Question 

The update to Section 10 of is terms of service, which Zoom says was to explain “how we use and who owns the various forms of content across our platform” gave Zoom “perpetual, worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicensable, and transferable license and all other rights” to use Customer Content, i.e. data, content, communications, messages, files, documents and more, for “machine learning, artificial intelligence, training, testing” (and other product development purposes).

The Reaction 

Following the details of the update being posted and discussed on the ‘Hacker News’ forum, there was a backlash against Zoom, with many commentators unhappy with the prospect of AI (e.g. generative AI chatbots, AI image generators and Zoom’s own AI models namely Zoom IQ) and more) being given access to what should be private Zoom calls and other communications.

What’s The Problem? 

There are several concerns that individuals, businesses and other organisations may have over their “Customer Content” being used to train AI. For example:

– Privacy Concerns – worries that personal or sensitive information in video calls could be used in ways the participants never intended.

– Potential security risks. For example, if Zoom stores video and audio data for AI training, it increases the chance of that data being exposed in a hack or breach. Also, it’s possible with generative AI models that private information could be revealed if a user of an AI chatbot asked the right questions.

– Ethical questions. This is because some users may simply not have given clear permission for their data to be used for AI training, raising issues of consent and fairness.

– Legal Issues. For example, depending on the country, using customer data in this manner might violate data protection laws like GDPR, which could get both the company and users into legal trouble. Also, Zoom users or admins for business accounts could click “OK” to the terms of service without fully realising what they’re agreeing, to and employees who use the business Zoom account may be unaware of the choice their employer has made on their behalf. It’s also been noted by some online commentators that Zoom’s terms of service still permit it to collect a lot of data without consent, e.g. what’s grouped under the term ‘Service Generated Data.’

Another Update Prompted 

The backlash, the criticism of Zoom and the doubtless fear of some users leaving the platform over this controversy appears to have prompted another update to the company’s terms of service which Zoom says was to “to reorganise Section 10 and make it easier to understand”. 

The second update was a sentence, in bold, added on the end of Section 10.2 saying: “Zoom does not use any of your audio, video, chat, screen sharing, attachments or other communications-like Customer Content (such as poll results, whiteboard and reactions) to train Zoom or third-party artificial intelligence models.” 

On the company’s blog, Chief Product Officer, Smita Hashim, re-iterated that: “Following feedback received regarding Zoom’s recently updated terms of service Zoom has updated our terms of service and the below blog post to make it clear that Zoom does not use any of your audio, video, chat, screen sharing, attachments, or other communications like customer content (such as poll results, whiteboard, and reactions) to train Zoom’s or third-party artificial intelligence models.” 

The Online Terms of Service Don’t Affect Large Paying Customers 

Smita Hashim explains in the blog post that the terms of service typically cover online customers, but “different contracts exist for customers that buy directly from us” such as “enterprises and customers in regulated verticals like education and healthcare.” Hashim states, therefore, that “updates to the online terms of service do not impact these customers.” 

What Zoom AI? 

Zoom has recently introduced two generative AI features to its platform – Zoom IQ Meeting Summary and Zoom IQ Team Chat Compose, available on free trial and offering automated meeting summaries and AI-powered chat composition.

To customers worried that these tools may be trained using ‘Customer Content’ Zoom says, “We inform you and your meeting participants when Zoom’s generative AI services are in use” and has specifically assured customers that Zoom does not use customer content (e.g. as poll results, whiteboard-content, or user-reactions) to train Zoom’s own (or third-party) AI models.

Criticism 

In 2020, Zoom faced criticism over only offering end-to-end encryption as a paid extra feature after saying paying users would have it anyway. Also, with Zoom being the company whose product enabled (and is all about) remote working, it was criticised after asking staff living within a “commutable distance” (i.e. 50 miles / 80km) of the company’s offices to come to the office twice a week when it was reported to have said (at one time) that all staff could work remotely indefinitely.

What Does This Mean For Your Business? 

This story shows how, at a time when data is now needed in vast quantities to train AI, a technology that’s growing at a frightening rate (and has been the subject of dire warnings about the threats it could cause), clear data protections in this area are lagging or are missing altogether.

Yes, there are data protection laws. Arguably however, with the lack of understanding of how AI models work and what they need, service terms may not give a clear picture of what’s being consented to (or not) when using AI. There’s a worry, therefore, that boundaries of data protection, privacy, security, ethics, legality, and other contraints may be overstepped without users knowing it in the rush for more data as clear regulation is left behind.

Zoom’s extra assurances may have gone some way toward calming the backlash down and assuring users, but the fact that there was such a backlash over the contents of an old update shows the level of confusion and mistrust around this relatively new technological development and how it could affect everyone.

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