Former Homeland Security head tells Pando why he doesn't trust his fitness data to the cloud

By Andy Meek , written on March 28, 2015

From The News Desk

Michael Chertoff is one of the millions of Americans who use fitness trackers to accompany them when they exercise. In his case, when he runs.

Where the former Homeland Security secretary under George W. Bush differs from most people in that scenario, though, is in the fact that he leaves all his data on the device itself and doesn’t let any of it get saved to the cloud. Sure, he concedes in an interview with Pando, there might be some utility in letting things like the speed and frequency of his runs be uploaded and stored so that it could be presented back to him later in a way he might get some insight from.

But the nation’s second head of Homeland Security – and the executive chairman of The Chertoff Group, a global risk management advisory firm which counts among its principals former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden – says he’s guided by a few basic principles when it comes to wearables, the Internet of Things and the like. Among them:

“One shouldn’t default to the position that connecting everything is perfect.”

Chertoff tells Pando he also applies a kind of digital “Washington Post test” to his activities that require him to allow any of his data to be captured by a product or service. (That’s a reference to the litmus test among politicians of a certain vintage, weighing whether they’d be ok with the Washington Post finding out and printing a particular thing they’ve done or said.)

All of us, Chertoff says, should treat our data online with the same degree of care with which we guard our reputation.

What that means, in practice, is of course the operative question. And the stakes for answering it continue to get higher, as the IoT market continues to explode – the Gartner research firm predicted in January that the market will see almost 5 billion connected things in use this year, up 30 percent from 2014 and reaching 25 billion by 2020. A few days ago, meanwhile, the U.S. Sen. passed a resolution calling for a national vision for the Internet of Things, the text of which reads in part – “Increased connectivity can empower consumers in nearly every aspect of their digital lives.”

Which is one reason it’s interesting to note how someone like Chertoff who’s been one of the government’s top security officials (and whose firm employs officials who’ve worked in the nation’s security apparatus under both Bush and Obama) thinks the Robert Scobles of the world need to be more thoughtful in their rush to jack everything they own into the Web.

“I could see us eventually progressing to a day where almost everything you do is monitored, even if you never agreed to it, simply because all your interactions – whether using Uber or paying at a restaurant – all of that is being collected by somebody and run through algorithms,” says Chertoff, who, incidentally, also is not a Gmail user. “Maybe the insurance company calls you up one day and says we’re not going to pay for something because of the lifestyle they see you living. Is that really what we want to do? That would create a level of micromanagement in a lot of people’s lives that goes a lot farther than what we worried about in the days when we were reading ‘1984.’”

Jacob Silverman, author of the just-released book “Terms of Service,” agrees. And he suggests that all you quantified selfers are part of the problem.

From his book:

“Variations of surveillance have become central to the quantified self movement, in which people use smartphones, cameras, sensors and other devices to record and analyze data about anything from their eating habits to their daily movements. Frequently hailing from the tech industry, quantified selfers believe that every human problem – whether it’s your slow metabolism or trouble sleeping – is a bug amenable to a technological fix … (But) one pitfall of lifelogging is how the collection of this data can become normalized, even expected. That data in turn can be used against us by insurance companies or mortgage firms.”

He goes on to note a June 2012 article from the Economist which explained how Swiss insurance company Rigi Capital Partners chose not to purchase the life insurance policy of an elderly woman with dementia because “her Facebook profile suggested she had a vibrant social life, not dementia.”

In an email to Pando, Silverman points for additional context to Apple’s latest products.

I worry about Apple's collection of biometric data, from medical information through the watch to the thumbprint sensor on the iPhone,” Silverman tells Pando. “Data brokers stand ready to commoditize this information and sell it back to us in the form of insurance subsidies or participation in medical studies or simply advertising ("Your heartrate indicates you may be stressed. How about a Snickers?"). It also wasn't that long ago that Apple had a major security breach with iCloud. You can't change your fingerprint. But the safest way to guard sensitive information is not to collect it in the first place.

And yet, the name of the game when it comes to connected devices and user data is apparently he who ends the game with the most marbles wins. Everybody – from Facebook, which a few days ago launched a version of its Parse platform for the IoT to FitBit, which is all about collecting data – wants more.

“There’s a lot of great data that’s beneficial to the consumer that’s being collected, so I think there’s a lot of opportunity to run analytics on that data at some point and get people deeper insights about their health and their daily lifestyle,” Fitbit CEO James Park told The Washington Post this week.

That’s no doubt true. There’s plenty of utility to be found in using wearables to do enough analysis on yourself to improve your quality of life or even something as prosaic as using a Nest thermostat help cut your energy bill.

Still -- “I think what you have to realize is every time you have an interaction where you’re giving a piece of data, you have a choice to make,” says Chertoff. “Now, I’m not a fanatic about this. I do give data out. I have a grocery card. But I think about it. It’s a conscious decision. I ask, is it worth it for me? And, what am I giving up? In some areas, I might say it’s worth it to me to have that data in the cloud, and I’m prepared to take the consequences. There’s not one right answer. But it is about mindfulness, related to your data.”

In a way, he continues, the digital version of that “Washington Post test” today is something akin to – would you surrender this data, knowing it could be sliced and diced in a way that affects your future job prospects, your finances and more, he asks. He also thinks a legislative fix will probably be required to more closely rein in things like uses of data by third parties.

“People see all the time, click here to register, it’s free,” Chertoff says. “And the truth is, it’s not free. You’re just paying with data instead of cash.”


[Editor’s note: The Go On With Your Quantified Self 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.]

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