No place to hide from personal data monitoring by surveillance capitalism
Safeguards are needed to prevent sensitive digital health and security information being shared by technology firms
When I went swimming in my local pool this week, my Apple Watch tracked not only my time on each lap, but my heart rate throughout. Then I rode a Lime e-bike home, which noted my exact route, time and calories burnt — “GPS Tracked”, it declared proudly.
Apple was not the first to imagine heart sensors. In George Orwell’s 1984, the “telescreens” in the homes of party members recorded heartbeats that might reveal a plot against Big Brother. “You could not control the beating of your heart, and the telescreen was quite delicate enough to pick it up.”
Apple Watch does not feel Orwellian, but many cases of data surveillance do. Equifax, the credit-scoring agency, this week agreed to pay almost $800m to settle with US regulators over a 2017 hack in which the sensitive personal information of 147-million customers was stolen from a database.
Retailers and banks have kept and shared customer data as far back as the founding of Equifax in 1899, and the practice was codified into credit scores in the 1950s. The internet and smartphones have turned such practices into a vast industry, dubbed “surveillance capitalism” by Shoshana Zuboff, a Harvard professor.
Many internet or app companies gather data on browsing habits and location for targeted advertising. Only the most cautious of us read what lurks behind the pop-up screens seeking our consent before clicking on “OK”. This is the price of free admission.
But I do not use an Apple Watch as a necessary evil — I want my health to be tracked, and have paid for the data to be stored and analysed. As more sensors are strapped to our bodies, fixed in vehicles and embedded in homes, we can monitor ourselves better.
Zuboff, a critic of technology companies such as Google, describes the enforced sharing of personal data as “a coup from above — the installation of a new kind of sovereign power”. Instead of companies creating goods and services in response to consumer demand, data gathered from people becomes a corporate asset.
Health apps show the true benefits, not only in keeping people fit but in tackling illness
She contrasts top-down surveillance capitalism with the “consumer revolution” in 18th-century England, when colonial luxuries such as calico and patterned fabrics became fashionable among an emerging middle class. Some historians argue that this awakening led to the industrial revolution, rather than the other way round.
While many technology applications are as Zuboff describes, health and personal monitoring are consumer-led markets. The Apple Watch was initially positioned as a luxury, but it soon became clear that its true appeal was functional. The attractiveness of the object matters less than having a sensor on the wrist.
The consumer appeal of the “internet of things” used to sound ridiculous — who needs a refrigerator that tells you when to buy butter? Health apps show the true benefits, not only in keeping people fit but in tackling illness.
Livongo, a US digital health service that has filed for an initial public offering, is one example. It allows diabetics to test their blood-sugar levels, have their results analysed remotely and be told by text or app what they need to do immediately. By making it easier to monitor basic health data, such services help people to stay well.
Remote monitoring is also useful in looking after elderly relatives and other vulnerable people. Sensors that report back when someone falls, or remind them to take medication, can save lives and provide peace of mind. This technology is simple but valuable.
Health is not the only market. More people now have sensors and cameras in their homes, along with voice-activated assistants such as Amazon Alexa. It is simple to check that all is well while you are out by streaming video from your living room on a smartphone.
This is similar to Orwell’s telescreen — the distinction is that the consumer controls it, rather than a government watching. It is hard to draw a clear line between data monitoring and surveillance in terms of the technology — both involve data gathering and analysis — but the intent differs.
It would be tragic if the market for life and health monitoring went the way of credit scoring and behavioural advertising, which were controlled for years by data brokers without consumers knowing how their personal data were being used, or exerting any influence. Two safeguards are needed if data monitoring is not to end in scandal.
First is privacy. My swimming times and speed on a bike are mundane data but I do not want them used to sell me swimming gear or energy drinks. Regarding hypertension, diabetes or other sensitive medical records, no patient wants them shared.
Second is security. The Equifax breach of social security numbers and card details was serious enough but the chance of someone hacking into personal images and medical records is more frightening. The more personal the data, the greater the jeopardy.
There is still a boundary between mass surveillance and personal data monitoring. Having messed up so much, the technology industry should not mess this up too.
© The Financial Times Limited 2019