Five Alive: How to run an ‘ethical history feature’ design check on a new AAC communication app

All of this information about AAC app history features should be disclosed by the developer in promotional materials. If you cannot answer these questions by looking at their promotional video or written instructions or description of the app, ask the developer. If you already have the app, it is very easy to run your own check.

Five Alive: 5 Questions for an ‘ethical history feature’ design check:

  1. Does the AAC app have a ‘history’ or ‘store’ feature included? YES or NO
  2. * Now go to the history section. Can you delete the message? YES or NO
  3. * Look at the settings and controls in the apps control panel. Is there a setting for turning the history feature ‘on’ and ‘off’? YES or NO
  4. * Does the person using the app to communicate need to use the same method of access to change the history setting, or a different method? (e.g., switch, or direct touch?) YES or NO
  5. * Is it possible ‘clear’ all messages from the history? YES or NO

If you answered ‘no’ to any of the four starred questions, there is a concern that the AAC app will not safeguard privacy and will expose the person to potential harms arising from lack of confidentiality in sensitive communications.

Why should we advocate for privacy in communications by people who cannot speak? People with complex communication needs (i.e., little or no speech) often rely on augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) systems to communicate. Many of them also have disabilities and rely upon other people on a daily basis for assistance in core activities of daily life: mobility, self-care, communication, access to education, sexual expression, and healthcare interactions. Not all people with disabilities are safe in these interactions. Research has shown that “having significant physical and communication disabilities are greater risk factors for victimization than either gender or educational level.” (Bryen, Carey, & Frantz, 2003, p.132). Therefore, it is important that all people with communication disability are afforded a way to communicate privately about their concerns, as enjoyed by other people who communicate using natural speech.

Why must we be concerned about the design of an AAC app on the ‘history’ kept of communications made using the app?Any AAC app that is developed must help safeguard the person’s right to private and confidential conversations without fear of their communications being read by a third party.  An ‘AAC app’ that does not safeguard privacy might prevent a person who relies upon it to communicate from:

– reporting abuse safely or with less risk of it being known to the perpetrator

– participating in confidential discussions with another person

– safeguarding the privacy of other people with whom they communicate or about whom they communicate.

This can impact negatively upon their employment, their healthcare discussions, their relationships with other people, and their personal safety. In that case, the AAC app might do more ‘harm’ than good. It is only with this provision of privacy and confidentiality that we might do more to ‘end the silence’ (Bryen et al., 2003) on reporting of victimization and abuse by people with complex communication needs.

Communication apps (‘AAC’ apps) that do the following do not safeguard communication privacy when using AAC to communicate with other people:

– having a history feature without user controls (i.e., that are not accessible using the same method of access as the person with communication disability needs to use the system itself)

– not having a way to turn ‘on’ and ‘off’ the history feature as desired for safeguarding confidential discussions

– not having a way to ‘clear’ or ‘delete’ history items that the person would not like to be read by any other party

Ref: Bryen, D. N., Carey, A., Frantz, B. (2003). Ending the Silence: Adults who Use Augmentative Communication and their Experiences as Victims of Crimes. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, VOL. 19 (2), pp. 125–134.


2 thoughts on “Five Alive: How to run an ‘ethical history feature’ design check on a new AAC communication app

  1. Thankyou for this post!
    I got the gist from your tweets, but this makes it clear exactly what we’re talking about!

    I have a question for you about this issue.
    I once had a mobile phone that had predictive text that “learned” from me… it was the kind where you type using the numbers, so 4883 could be “good” or “home”, or any number of other things. But it seemed to be programmed to learn which word I was more likely to use.
    Are there AAC devices that do that kind of thing?
    Could that sort of thing be compromising privacy, while masquerading as a convenient feature?

    • Hey Lauren, thanks for your reply too, very interesting – actually I think perhaps the app that learns might be additional layer of help in terms of communication speed so that would be a benefit; that’s more like the ‘smart’ app – however if it is computer driven it is not a ‘person’ learning what I need to communicate, so it depends on whether this can be retrieved and how it might be used by other people with or without consent that would be the privacy issue. I might have to see it work first to judge that, though …

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