The question of private personal space around us, is very culturally defined – there’s the old joke about the English person meeting a Spanish person, and they continually move across the room as they try to shake hands: the Spanish person keeps stepping into the English person’s preferred area of personal space, because they want to be closer physically to be sociable. and the English person keeps backing away to try and achieve a distance to where they feel comfortable.
 It can be the same online space, people have different comfort zones, in terms of what they want to share.  I spoke to Sean recently, who is 28 and in training for his first marathon next year.  He uses online tools to track his fitness progression – and pretty much everything else about himself.
“I like to see how my endurance and personal bests have developed, and how that relates to things like what I ate and how hydrated I was, as well as the weather and humidity at the time – all these things impact performance and represent variables I can tweak in my training in the build-up to events”.
We looked at the sheer volume of data he has accumulated in a number of cloud-based apps, including Endomondo and MyFitnessPal, over most of 2014.  Some of this data he enters manually such as the food diary, but other things like the paces run – and exactly where he’s been at every moment of every day are set to track automatically. His performances are tracked against body composition changes also, updated automatically from his Aria wireless scales via his Fitbit.
data tracking

Self-Quantifier or ‘Off the Grid’?

But it scared me to think how much these apps collectively knew about him – none of them are specially secure, all single password authenticated services logged into by lots of mobile/wearable devices which could easily be lost or stolen anyway.  Of course it doesn’t have to be super-secure, data about how many glasses of water you drank on April 17th cannot be used to empty your bank account…

But when it’s all put together there is just such a LOT of it.  Sean chuckled when I wondered if he’d thought about this kind of life info in the hands of someone with evil in mind, a “Gone Girl” style psychopath – how effectively could you frame somebody, by overwriting their ‘Moves’ data for example, to put them at a crime-scene?  Or could such data provide the perfect alibi instead, confirming that you were being tracked via a mobile cell in another country at the time of death, or your blood sugar and muscle mass logged on the day are proof you could never have wielded the murder weapon in the first place…?   Maybe I should write a best-selling thriller, with a unique technical twist.  Meanwhile Sean uses his data to plot comparisons which are genuinely helpful to his training, and helping him improve his performance and wellbeing, and he loves being part of the “quantified self” movement – even sharing his data with fellow self-trackers in online communities.
Compare this to Sandra, who is afraid to use the pain diary app her consultant recommended to track the effects of her fibromyalgic symptoms.
“I have no idea where this data is being stored or who might somehow get access to it, if they had my email address.  I have a job I want to keep, and medical insurance which is currently supportive of my treatment.  If I record this data electronically it could actually be used against me by the insurers to prove that my condition was now chronic/incurable, and therefore outside the terms of the policy.  And the insurance is provided by my employer – my health is not affecting my work, when it is I will discuss it with them in a way and at a time I choose.
“I don’t know who the makers of this app are – neither does my doctor who recommended it! – nor why they are providing it for free.  Somebody has to get paid somewhere along the line, don’t they?  I suppose I could go to the hassle of using a false name and email address to run it but really I prefer to keep all health information completely off the internet and apps.  I record it all on paper along with the medication and everything, just she wants it, and I even offered to type it into a spreadsheet – I just don’t want it stored anywhere online.”
Paranoia? Not one of Sandra’s documented symptoms, but she wants to keep her private health information private.  She has worked with information security professionally, and has no confidence in cloud storage, or underwriters.  She is also firmly opposed to the UK’s plans to digitise NHS records.
It may be coincidental that she and Sean are a generation apart in age, but it’s important to appreciate that her concerns are not borne out of ignorance of how data security works, in fact the opposite – I’d say she is more likely to have read the small print of the user agreements for every service she signs up for than Sean is (or me, in truth).
She just finds the idea of an app which tracks your location and movements frankly disturbing: “To me, Big Brother means 1984, not Channel 4!  Information is power, and you need to store and share it carefully.  I don’t think I am alone in wanting some say about that”
What do you think? Tell me via or tweet @Casslar
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