How Secure Is Your Privacy?

The Lempert Report
October 12, 2021

If you are a baby boomer you may have a distant memory of the protests in the 1960s against cable television.

One issue was about having to pay to watch TV shows, after all we did have 3 networks and public television – who could want more? The other issue was that with the cable wiring into our homes it could allow the cable companies to know exactly what we were watching and invade our privacy.

Fast forward to 1997 and Netflix was born – a brilliant service that does capture the programming we watch and serves up suggestion of similar programs that their algorithm calculates you would enjoy. Seemingly a benefit and certainly a convenience but what’s happening with that data behind the scenes. Today we have about 1,000 cable channels. Just this past Sunday – on 60 Minutes, Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee who filed complaints with Federal law enforcement about the company, disclosed how Facebook’s own research showed that it amplified hate, misinformation and political unrest by collecting data on their users and being able to better understand them. Haugen has the proof. Not only is she a data scientist with a degree in computer engineering and an MBA from Harvard, but before she quit her job this May she secretly copied tens of thousands of pages of Facebook’s internal research.

Years ago, I discovered that nothing was private any longer. Many of us blame the internet or social media – but it started well before – and yes, its because of the advances of technology that has accelerated the issue. Back to being a kid. My first loss of privacy incident arose when I was about 13 and was talking to a girl on the phone. I heard a strange noise in the background, and since there was no one else at home I quickly figured out who was breaking into my privacy. Those days, the phone company offered what was then called a “party line” service – basically it was a shared service line that was less expensive than a private line – and was offered as a 2, 3 or 4 party line. In 1959 the Bremen Telephone Corporation offered a residential private line for $4.40 a month as compared to a 2 party line at $3.80. My family had a two party line and the “other” party was listening in. There were a bunch of flyers and ads that tried to make party line etiquette rules: The Good Party Liner, Co-operation Improves Party Line service, How good a telephone neighbor are you? A party line is like a barn raising.

Today we feel a lot more insecure about our privacy than ever – and with good reason. A column appeared in The Guardian on Tuesday that brought back all these memories to me. The column by Simon Usborne explores how big tech now encourages us to monitor everything from our heart rate to our glucose levels via smartphones and watches. How much privacy have we lost to the promise of self improvement - and is it time to stop? He asks. DNA testing kits are all the rage, to uncover what we should eat, what are those health factors that we are susceptible to, and how to improve our lives. Many that I speak with about these new technologies don’t want to go near them. They won’t even join the ancestry services to uncover the lost secrets of their families. And for one reason – they are afraid of what happens to the data. Usborne shared that afew years ago, in a fit of his grownupness inspired by new fatherhood – and his dad’s early death 20 years ago – he took out life insurance. Like many policies, it links premiums to lifestyles rather than crude metrics such as age and life expectancy. His Garmin health watch account transmitted his  step counts and activities to his insurance policy. Each year, as the policy renews it calculates the points he has won by walking far enough or the amount of calories he burns and that affects his insurance status and premiums. The more active he is, the less likely he is to die young – and the less he pays. Good news for him and those who exercise regularly. Bad news for those who don’t who could face higher premiums or even the loss of coverage.

Btihaj Ajana, is a reader in media and digital culture at King’s College London and a specialist in self-tracking. She says that constant advances in tracking have given tech companies new ways to keep selling their latest devices, while happily collecting the data we generate and sign away without reading the terms and conditions. “You don’t own that data,” she says. Apple promises to encrypt and guard the multiplying streams of health data it collects for us. But what of those third-party apps and services that have their own privacy policies which we never actually read? LifeSignals, a California startup has developed a chest patch to measure signals including breathing, temperature and even posture, noted a spike in demand last year from big businesses that wanted to screen staff for Covid symptoms. NatureQuant, a startup in Oregon, is developing an app to track and rate the time we spend outside – not how many steps, but where we step, based on the well-established health benefits of fresh air and green space. The company gathers data, including satellite imagery, street-view photography, road densities and measures of air pollution, to score any location (only in the US). GPS location tracking then pairs user and place.  NatureQuant reports that “We’re in conversations with big insurance providers to provide NatureDose as a tool to improve population health,” says Jared Hanley, the company’s CEO.

Privacy policies vary between health apps. Earlier this year, the New York Times analyzed the policies of 250 iPhone apps, including 20 health and fitness apps. Thirteen of these apps shared data with an average of three third-party trackers, many of which passed data to advertisers. It’s time we actually read those very long privacy policy statements, before we click on agree.