The social media news around Facebook and data breaches we hear about each week have sparked concern over our data. We are starting to worry about what is out there and who has access to it. There are obvious concerns about hackers selling our data for nefarious reasons. Likewise, there are issues like the social score used by China that can impact every facet of life. Nevertheless, there appears to be a larger wave coming. These changes are worth considering before you jump into the latest fad devices. It appears that our next big privacy concern is going to be our health-related data.
The Warning Signs
The popularity and power of wearable devices like the Apple Watch and Fitbit products is the first step in being able to access enormous amounts of data. There have been a few voices of caution, but generally, they have been pushed aside. We find it far too useful to be able to see how many steps we took each day. We can also see where our morning jog took us. Technology is awesome like that. However, when you look at the companies that are gathering that data and their capabilities you have to wonder where that will go next. Any time big business gets involved it should spark a big privacy concern.
The least surprising purchase of the year is Alphabet (i.e. Google) buying Fitbit. The popularity of Amazon’s Alexa products and the Apple Watch made it almost a guarantee that Google would dive into the wearable market. Add to that recent news about Project Nightingale. It is impossible to deny that “They” are coming for your medical data. The industry has long worried about the privacy of this data (e.g., HIPAA) but I do not find many people being overly concerned about such things. As with all technology and data, there are some pros and cons to this data being available en masse.
The Benefits Of Masses of Medical Data
Medical research lives and dies (no pun intended) on health data. There are reasons why health care professionals almost always start an encounter with taking your temperature, your blood pressure. Then they gather some general data about how you are feeling. These data points become part of the recommendation for how to treat your situation. You can see some dramatic examples of this in television shows about forensics and medical mysteries like House M.D. The ability for vast amounts of data to provide useful medical insights is not just the stuff of dramas and serials. There are all manners of health-related issues that can be addressed and prevented based on research into the data. That data may lead to a cure for cancer as well as dramatically reduced times for hospital stays and even lower-cost treatments.
Why This is a Big Privacy Concern
You might be saying, “wow, sign me up to help!”. While that is very considerate, you should also consider the downsides. The wearable devices we have and the ability for organizations like Amazon, Google, Apple, and others to store and process that data has other uses. Marketing is always a way to utilize what we know about each other. For example, what id the ads you are fed become adjusted to how you are feeling. You may suddenly get a flurry of car ads if your heart rate picks up while watching one. That may seem only slightly annoying. What about ads and services being sold to you based on sexual or religious preferences? When I know your rough (or precise) location and attitude through the week, I can tell whether you are turned on or off by all manner of environments and people.
Think about a mood ring that is far more detailed and accessible to a broad range of people in your life. What if your employer is able to access how you are doing during the day. They might be able to determine when you are focused or not? What if your boss knows roughly what you really think about him? The ability to use medical data is mind-boggling. It becomes more so when you start to look at how our statistics (blood pressure, heart rate, etc.) fluctuate in different situations. Think about it as if you were wearing a lie detector on your wrist throughout the day. Everyone you meet might not have access to that data. However, I am sure there are those that you would want to keep it from.
How To Proceed
While this type of data is worth our concern and worry, it may be hard to avoid the risks. The OTG (off-the-grid) life that eschews devices and services with tracking and data gathering capabilities has just become a little harder to adopt. There are all sorts of rewards dangled in front of us if we will give up a little data and privacy. We also are assured that our data will be kept private and not used without our permission. How has that worked out for us so far? The recent history has shown us that these sorts of things should be a big privacy concern.