Microsoft’s ‘Recall’ AI Under UK Watchdog Investigation

Microsoft being investigated for Recall feature over privacy concerns

May 27, 2024 – Microsoft's latest AI innovation, the ‘Recall' feature, has sparked significant controversy and is now under investigation by the UK's Information Commissioner's Office (ICO). The feature, which is part of Microsoft's new Copilot+ PCs, captures and stores screenshots of users' activities, raising serious privacy concerns among cybersecurity experts and privacy advocates.

Recall is an AI-powered tool designed to create a “photographic memory” of a user's computer activity. It takes screenshots every few seconds, indexing them to allow users to search through their past activities using natural language queries. This feature aims to enhance productivity by making it easier to find documents, images, and websites that users have interacted with in the past.

The ICO, an independent authority in the UK responsible for upholding data privacy rights, has initiated an investigation into Microsoft's Recall feature. The ICO's primary concern is the potential for misuse of the data collected by Recall, which could infringe on individuals' privacy rights. The ICO has emphasized the need for companies to be transparent about data usage and to rigorously assess and mitigate risks to individuals' rights and freedoms before launching new products.

In a statement, the ICO highlighted the importance of considering data protection from the outset and ensuring that personal data is processed only for specific purposes. The ICO is currently making inquiries with Microsoft to understand the safeguards in place to protect user privacy regarding the Recall feature.

Recall operates by taking constant screenshots of a user's screen, storing these images locally on the device. The AI then uses these screenshots to create a searchable index, allowing users to find specific moments or content by describing how they remember it. For example, a user could search for “the website with the white sneakers” or “the email from last Tuesday,” and Recall would retrieve the relevant screenshots.

Copilot+ PCs Recall Feature
Copilot+ PCs Recall Feature- Example

Microsoft has assured that all data collected by Recall is stored locally and encrypted, meaning it does not leave the user's device. Users can also filter out specific apps or websites from being included in the screenshots, pause the snapshot collection, and delete stored snapshots. However, the feature does not perform content moderation, meaning sensitive information such as passwords and financial data could still be captured and stored.

Privacy experts have expressed significant concerns about the potential risks associated with the Recall feature. Professor Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland's AI department described the feature as a potential “nightmare” if the device falls into the wrong hands. She pointed out that while data may remain on the device, users cannot protect themselves if the tool accesses everything that's been on the screen, even with privacy settings like incognito mode or clear history.

Dr. Dana McKay from RMIT's School of Computing Technologies also highlighted the potential dangers, noting that documenting every activity means it is available not just to the user but to anyone who can access their account. This could increase the risk of identity theft and make users' behavior easier to mimic or automate.

In response to the concerns, Microsoft has emphasized its commitment to privacy and security. The company has stated that Recall is an optional feature and that users have control over what is captured. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella assured that the screenshots never leave the user's device and that users can manage which apps and websites are included in the snapshots.

Microsoft has also highlighted that Recall operates locally, with all data stored on the PC and no information sent to the cloud or Microsoft's servers. The company has implemented multiple layers of protective measures, including encryption, to keep data secure. IT administrators can disable Recall from saving any snapshots and anticipate new policies to enable central filtering of specific apps and websites.

Despite Microsoft's assurances, the potential implications of the Recall feature remain a significant concern. Privacy advocates worry that the constant collection of screenshots could lead to misuse of sensitive information. For example, a CEO's personal laptop could become an enticing target for hackers equipped with infostealers, or a journalist's protected sources could be at risk in hostile countries.

Moreover, the feature could have a chilling effect on users, making them more cautious about what they do on their devices. This could be particularly problematic for vulnerable groups, such as domestic abuse survivors or individuals in oppressive regimes, who may be forced to share their devices with others.

As the investigation by the ICO continues, the future of Microsoft's Recall feature remains uncertain. The controversy highlights the ongoing challenges of balancing technological innovation with privacy and security concerns. As AI technology continues to advance, it is crucial for companies to prioritize user privacy and ensure that new features are designed with robust safeguards to protect individuals' rights and freedoms.

For now, users of Microsoft's Copilot+ PCs will need to carefully consider the potential risks and benefits of using the Recall feature. While it offers significant productivity enhancements, the privacy implications cannot be ignored. As the tech industry moves forward, the need for responsible AI development and stringent data protection measures will only become more critical.

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