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A modest proposal for privacy control

Virtual assistants like Siri and Google Now could be helpful in navigating privacy settings or letting users know how their data is being used by Internet services.

Siri and Google Now could be helpful in navigating privacy settings or letting users know what information is collected. CNET screenshots

Privacy policies, with disclosures about what kind of information Internet services collect about you and how to manage your online profile, are notoriously obtuse, incomplete, and difficult to master.

They aren't as obtuse as the National Security Agency is about its data collection policies, but the vast majority of online users have little interest in trying to parse the language or even in trying to actively manage their profiles with the tools offered today.

The companies that collect data, of course, want to assure you that whatever they collect is in pursuit of creating a better experience for you -- which can make more money for them. It's a symbiotic relationship, but it's also filled with suspicion that the Internet services are not fully protecting users from fraudsters, government intruders, greedy partners, and the service providers' own greed. They have sought to become less obtuse and more transparent. Google, for example, has a Dashboard that assists people in reviewing and controlling the data, such as network visibility and sharing defaults, tied to their Google accounts.

However, theFrench regulatory agency CNIL has told Google that the company must be more specific in telling users what data it collects, why it collects the data, and how long the data is retained. In addition, CNIL wants Google to obtain users' permission to store cookies on their devices.

Facebook has a comprehensive data use policy for those who care to read it but doesn't share everything it does behind the scenes. For example, the company works with third-party data aggregators, such as Datalogix, Epsilon, and Axcion, to track what users buy offline and let its machines use the data to serve targeted ads. For example, if a user bought a drill at Home Depot, he or she might see more ads for home improvement products in their newsfeed. The data use policy isn't totally clear about the third-party data mashups:

Sometimes we get data from our affiliates or our advertising partners, customers and other third parties that helps us (or them) deliver ads, understand online activity, and generally make Facebook better. For example, an advertiser may tell us information about you (like how you responded to an ad on Facebook or on another site) in order to measure the effectiveness of -- and improve the quality of -- ads.

Here's a modest proposal for making privacy policies and managing personal profiles more palatable and transparent: Internet services should provide apps with knowledge bases that integrate with virtual assistants like Siri and Google Now to navigate and control privacy settings, as well as disclose specifics on know how personal data is being used.

Instead of reading pages of text, users could query a virtual assistant, which could walk them through their privacy settings and answers related questions. Google states in its privacy policy that it will "share personal information with companies, organizations or individuals outside of Google if we have a good-faith belief that access, use, preservation or disclosure of the information is reasonably necessary" for legal and security reasons. A user could ask the virtual assistant to list or send a file of who Google shares your personal information with and why. A popular query would be: "Does Google share my information with the NSA?"

Facebook, for example, has what it calls interactive tools that could be turned into an intelligent, interactive, voice controlled app with info cards.

The reality is that most people online don't concern themselves with privacy issues, at least until their privacy has been violated. But as virtual assistants gain more popularity, managing privacy and protecting your online persona will be more of a continuous, background process handled by an intelligent agent rather than a sometimes impenetrable chore.