The privacy risks of the “virtual friend”: the Italian DPA clamps down Replika
Replika is a chatbot, with a written and voice interface, based on artificial intelligence that generates a “virtual friend” that user can decide to configure as a friend, a mentor or even as a romantic partner.
There are many benefits that Replika aims to bring to its users: improving mood and emotional well-being, helping them in understanding their thoughts and feelings, calming anxiety and working toward goals such as positive thinking, stress management and finding love. Replika, in fact, falls under the branch of artificial intelligence called “affective computing”, capable of recognizing and expressing human emotions.
The chatbot’s description leaves no doubt about the massive amount of personal data – “very personal”, as defined in a press release by the Italian Data Protection Authority – that Luka Inc., the company that created Replika, collects: confessions, problems, doubts, joys, desires and pains.
These aspects raised the concerns of the Italian DPA, which recognized serious risks to minors and, more generally, to emotionally vulnerable individuals.
The absence of an age verification mechanism
Besides providing children with completely inappropriate answer given their level of development and self-awareness, the App lacked any mechanism for verifying the age of its users.
According to the Italian DPA, it is not sufficient that the App’s terms of service mention that below-13 children are banned from using it and that below-18 users must be authorized in advance by their parent or legal guardians. Rather, it is essential that mechanisms for verifying the age of users are effectively implemented, either in the form of filters for minors or blocking the App in case the child reveals his age. This is an ideal solution to be compliant with Article 8(2) GDPR – entitled “Conditions applicable to child's consent in relation to information society services” – which requires the data controller to make reasonable efforts to verify that consent is given or authorized by the holder of parental responsibility over the child, taking into consideration available technology.
• consent of the data subject, in the absence of the conditions set out in Article 8(2) GDPR;
• the performance of a contract to which the data subject is party, since children are legally incapacitated under Italian law to conclude a contract for the supply of services, such as the one in the present case, which involves the provision of a significant amount of personal data.
In the light of the aforementioned circumstances, the processing of personal data of Replika users breached Articles 5, 6, 8, 9 and 25 GDPR.
Based on these violations, the Italian DPA urgently ordered Luka Inc. the temporary limitation on the proceedings of all the personal data relating to users in the Italian territory. The Authority also imposed the company to provide information within 20 days on any steps that it may have taken in order to comply with the GDPR, under penalty of a fine up to 20 million or up to 4% of the total worldwide annual turnover.
Guido Scorza, member of the Italian DPA, commented on the matter in these terms: “handing over part of personal identity to an artificial intelligence is something of which a minor is unable to appreciate the impact, effects and consequences”.
The online safety of minors is a particularly important theme to the Italian Authority, who has repeatedly advocated for the introduction of an efficient age verification mechanisms in all platforms and digital services.
In the opinion of the Italian DPA, these mechanisms could be properly implemented by means of different methodologies. For instance, (i) using an artificial intelligence that, through machine learning algorithms, produces a plausible guess of the user's age or, again, (ii) by the so called “crowdsearching”, a scheme that instructs users to ascertain violations of the age threshold and report them to the platform operator.
Article provided by INPLP member: Chiara Agostini (RP Legal & Tax, Italy)
Dr. Tobias Höllwarth (Managing Director INPLP)