Apple Inc. recently released its latest version of the Apple Watch. This new entry into the wearables market boasts a sleeker finish and a larger watch face. It’s becoming easier to just simply leave your phone in your pocket and allow your wrist watch to pick up communication duties.
The new Apple Inc. watch can also tell you about yourself. A heart monitor is included, capturing every beat. It even notifies you of any irregularities.
This is the first time a device intended for daily use can tell you about your health in such great detail. Of course, smartphones are capable of telling users their daily steps. Though, this information isn’t particularly useful for determining health considering many forms of exercise are not captured in steps. Heart rate is a much more useful measurement that can provide information of a person’s general health. Apple Inc. is the first major wearables producer and distributor with the capability of possessing this information on millions of people. Health data privacy is often considered to be a right privileged in the Constitution. Court cases, such as Roe v. Wade, were decided on the basis that citizens may keep information about their health private.
Technically, Apple Inc. is not violating the right to privacy by collecting the heart rate(s) of its watch-owners so long as they agree to its terms and services. However, it is not alerting watch-owners to the potential danger of giving away such information, especially if millions are doing it at the same time. And even if Apple Inc. does not intend to sell the data in any way, the company cannot claim a patent on all wearables that gather data on heart rate. Another company could come along, offering a desirable device, and use the precedent set by Apple Inc. to sell people’s health data to advertisers or the government. Apple Inc. needs to be clear about exactly the amount of access they have to people’s health data, the manner in which they intend to utilize data to which they have access, and the degree to which they can ensure the security of people’s data.
Imagine the type of information that could be mined from this data. A person scrolling through Facebook on her iPhone might undergo a variety of fluctuations in her heart rate, which the Apple watch’s monitor will capture. Such information could be used to understand how one reacts to news articles, advertisements, and much more. While the ability to monitor heart rate might seem insignificant, taken in conjunction with additional information captured by our devices, more holistic and accurate models of consumer/voter preferences can be constructed. The more data variables potentially available to companies, government, and advertisers, the less privacy individuals will have. In other words, the sum of our data is greater than its parts.
As personal data goes public, we risk a world where no one can choose or move freely without the scrutiny of nameless entities. This is doubly terrifying when considering the myriad ways these groups will be able to exert influence on us. Advertisers can tailor their ads to people based on their emotional state. It can notice that a person might be stressed and sell goods accordingly.
In classical economics, the market is made up of individual buyers and sellers who, through rational consideration, sell the goods they produce and, in turn, purchase goods they desire. The mental state of the individual isn’t given much thought by classical economists, as the invisible hand is thought to guide people to make choices that maximize their utility. However, the world of advertising does not see consumers this way. Advertisers often make appeals based on emotion rather than strictly rational consideration. Most products offer minimal, marginal utility on account of the abundance of goods society produces. The iPhone is hardly different than an Android device, and Coca Cola is hardly more palatable than Pepsi. That’s where tapping into consumer irrationality becomes useful. Rather than inundate people with your product at all times, offer it when the data says they’ll be most susceptible to purchasing it. Sell them horror stories when they’re afraid and gym memberships when they’re sedentary.
Regardless the net impact of this, it is undeniable that our free-floating data increases the potential of privacy and personal freedom infringement. As the market creeps into every corner of our lives, it is on us to ask what happens when our devices know us better than we know ourselves. What will be the long-term effects be on civic life in America and around the globe? And what happens when the market, broadly speaking, controls how we purchase?
Caleb Zakarin is a member of the class of 2020 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.