Scanning my college alumni magazine, I came across a piece by Judith Hertog called “A Monitored State.” Since it relates closely to my earlier blog, Killer App, I thought its report might be useful here as a gloss on that piece. “A Monitored State” describes Dartmouth professor Andrew Campbell’s experiment monitoring student behavior via the smartphones that virtually all carry and use constantly. A paper he wrote described how smartphone sensor data “contain such detailed information about a user’s behavior that researchers can predict the user’s GPA (grade point average) or identify a user who suffers from depression or anxiety.” In this study, called Student Life, 48 student volunteers allowed Campbell’s team to gather a stream of data via an app installed on their smartphones. The app “tracked and downloaded information from each phone’s microphone, camera, light sensor, GPS, accelerometer and other sensors” and then uploaded it to a database. By analyzing the data, Campbell’s researchers were able to record details about each student’s location, study habits, parties attended, exercise programs, and sleep patterns. For at least two students, Campbell was even able to see signs of depression: “I could see they were not interacting with other people, and one was not leaving his room at all,” Campbell said. Both failed to show up for finals, whereupon Campbell gave them incompletes and encouraged them to return in the fall to complete his and other courses with success. What Campbell draws from this is that, in the future, not only will universities be able to intervene to help students in such situations, but such information will be available in real time to monitor everything, including the state of every student’s mental well-being.
Campbell has also collaborated with brain science colleagues “to discover how smartphone sensor data can be combined with information from fMRI scans” in order to eventually create apps that not only identify mental problems but also “intervene before a breakdown occurs.” In fact, in a follow-up phase of his study, he got student volunteers to submit to fMRI scans, and wear a Microsoft smart band that collected body signals like heart rate, body temperature, sleep patterns, and galvanic skin response—all associated with stress. Thus, more than simple behaviors, today’s technologies can (and already do) detect, grossly at least, an individual’s state of mind. One of Campbell’s colleagues predicts that in addition to being able to predict which individuals are “most susceptible to weight gain,” smartphones of the future will be able to warn when “its owner enters a fast-food restaurant.”
The potential threat from all these technologies has not been lost on Campbell and his colleagues. His collaborator, Prof. Todd Heatherton, is already worried about a future determined by the constant collection of the data monitored by smartphones, and its use by companies, insurance underwriters, for instance, to determine who gets insurance and how much they pay for it. Heatherton was also shocked by how casual students were about sharing such personal data for his study. But clearly, this generation is already used to sharing just about everything on apps like Find Friends (an app that broadcasts one’s location to everyone in one’s network). For Heatherton and others, this raises important questions about the ethics of all this technology and how far it can be used to monitor every detail of our lives. James Moore, a Dartmouth philosophy professor specializing in ethics, worries how information about a person’s entire life could be used by governments wanting, for just one example, to monitor those on welfare. Or totalitarian governments that could use such data to keep potentially rebellious populations under rigid control.
Campbell himself worries about the same thing, hoping that legislation will be forthcoming that will at least give individuals ownership of their own data (now being used by Google and many others for commercial purposes and more). People need to think about this, he says, and realize that “we are turning into a monitored state.” Or perhaps already are.
Even George Orwell couldn’t have imagined such an easily ‘big-brothered’ state—and all thanks to those adorable smartphones.