Pando

As the “quantified self” industry explodes, who will control the data -- us or them?

By Nathaniel Mott , written on March 6, 2015

From The News Desk

[Editor's note: MyFitnessPal has just sold to UnderArmor, sales of Coke are down, and everything at CES was a wearable.  Will data really make us less of a flabby, junk eating nation? In this Pando special series -- Go On With Your Quantified Self -- we'll examine the promises and limits of the brave new world of "quantified self."

The entire series is being sponsored by New Relic, so you’ll only see their ads around “Go On With Your Quantified Self” pieces. But the series was conceived, commissioned and edited entirely by Pando. New Relic had no input whatsoever in the editorial. For more on our policy towards single sponsor series like this one, see here.]

It's easier than ever to quantify every aspect of our lives. Steps are counted with fitness trackers, not muttered numerals. Finances are monitored with apps, not checkbooks. So many actions taken in the physical world are being transformed into various bits and bytes.

Yet it's still not clear who's going to control that information -- the people it quantifies, or the corporations that make such quantification possible. And while the world waits for the answer to that question, it's becoming harder to avoid the measurement of our every move.

Perhaps the most intrusive aspect of the quantification movement comes from health tools.

Consider the addition of HealthKit, an application which automatically collects information about someone's movements, to every iPhone. This isn't an optional feature that can be turned off at will -- it's just a part of the device now, like its camera or wireless antennas.

Apple doesn't seem to use this information, and it allows consumers to choose whether or not they wish to share HealthKit's data with third-party applications. But it's not hard to see how measuring someone's activity without their consent could be worrisome.

Facebook can help envision those worries. Reuters reported in October 2014 that the company plans to learn about users' health with "support communities" and "preventative care" applications. Here's the potential problem with the introduction of those tools:

Figuring out how to handle our bodies is a constant struggle. There’s a reason going through puberty can be so horrifyingly difficult, and a lot of it has to do with the fight to learn about a changing body. Diseases can make it difficult to do ordinary tasks, so we have to learn how to work around them. And mental disorders, despite their physical origins, are so stigmatized that it’s difficult for their sufferers to even admit the problem to themselves, let alone advertisers.

Allowing companies to quantify all those confusing conditions with the intent of selling the resulting data to advertisers might be the final threshold between them and total knowledge. There’s nothing more personal, or more worthy of defending, than our bodies and our struggle to accept them despite their faults. Should companies like Facebook be privy to that struggle? Substitute "Google" for "Facebook" and that question still stands. Yet that hasn't stopped the Web's premier for-profit surveillance company from entering the physical world, first by acquiring companies like Nest and Dropcam, then with an application called Google Fit.

Google Fit is a lot like HealthKit for Android devices. It uses sensors included in most smartphones to measure activity, whether that's walking or cycling, and to make this data viewable in a dedicated application. It can also display information from other fitness-focused tools.

This information isn't gathered for no reason. As I explained in a post about Google Fit:

It’s no longer enough for companies to track someone’s activity across the Web by monitoring their emails, analyzing their browsing history, or keeping tabs on their online searches. All that information now needs to be supplemented with data about what someone’s doing in the real world, whether that’s demonstrated through location tracking or through a health application.

Why else would so many companies rush to help people track their steps, count their calories, or collect other health-related information? It’s not just about making self quantification more convenient for the few self-obsessed consumers who actually use that information. It’s also about increasing the amount of information that can be offered to advertisers — maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but certainly as soon as these companies can get away with it. There's a problem when some of the companies most likely to usher in the era of self-quantification are focused on gathering information to sell to advertisers. It's even more of a problem when this data is collected via sensors which come standard with every smartphone, or when consumers are unable to prevent companies from monitoring them.

These companies survive by their ability to monetize digital information. Remembering that fact when they offer to quantify everything from our morning jobs to our midnight take-out binges could be the difference between total surveillance and relative privacy.

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[illustration by Brad Jonas]