understanding the importance and impact of anonymity and authentication in a networked society
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BUDDY BOTS: How Turing's fast friends are under-mining consumer privacy
By: Ian R. Kerr and Marcus Bornfreund

forthcoming (2005) Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments (MIT PRESS)

Recent developments in virtual reality have resulted in the creation of a range of computer applications, including various forms of animation used in automated ecommerce to create custom-designed online avatars. These avatars interact with consumers, enhancing their online experiences while, at the same time, employing various corporate strategies aimed at improving marketing, sales and customer service. In a rapidly evolving field known as “affective computing,” the creators of some virtual reality applications are utilizing various principles of cognitive science and artificial intelligence to generate virtual representatives and other avatars capable of garnering consumer trust. This is accomplished by programming avatar personalities that are well-suited to the targeted demographic – buddy bots, whose looks are appealing and whose manner of speaking is enticing. Unfortunately, these techniques can be exploited in virtual reality environments to facilitate extensive, clandestine consumer profiling under the guise of harmless, friendly conversation between avatars and humans. Buddy bots and other virtual reality applications are being used by businesses to collect valuable personal information and private communications without the informed consent of those who unwittingly supply real life personal information to their newly found virtual buddies. This article critically examines such practices and provides basic consumer protection principles with the aim of generating a more socially-responsible application of virtual reality and a greater respect for personal privacy in automated electronic commerce.

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