A stroll through any city in the United States will tell you that Americans love their technology devices. Teenagers, young adults and senior citizens alike are glued to their smartphones, wear exercise trackers and have various health trackers hidden under their clothing. Pew Research reports that 72 percent of Americans have smartphones; while they use them to make calls and text their loved ones, various types of data about them and their usage is being collected — often unknowingly — by third parties. The ethics of this type of data collection is a topic that has appeared only in the last handful of years and is worth exploring.
From Fitbits to Direct-to-Doctor Data Transmission
Health trackers run the gamut from fitness trackers (Fitbit, Garmin, Misfit, et al.) to diet trackers to monitors that tell your doctor whether you are using your CPAP machine as directed. Trackers make it convenient to find out data that people might not already know, such as:
- The number of many steps they are taking each day.
- Whether they are sticking to the number of calories recommended for their health goals.
- If they are complying with their medical treatment plan.
Ethics come into play here. First, there is the chance that direct-to-doctor data transmission will be compromised or accidentally shared with those who are not involved with the care of the patient. The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH) deals specifically with this type of potential breach in ethics.
There is also the possibility that medical decisions will be made by those other than the patient and doctor based on privileged information. For example, some patients are being denied CPAP machines — used to treat sleep apnea — if they have a history of not complying with their doctor’s instructions. How do the insurance companies know whether this is happening? Rather than relying on the patient’s word, compliance rates are transmitted directly to the insurance company. This could be stepping over the line of medical ethics.
Cybersecurity and Smart Devices
Of course, the ethics of smart devices goes beyond health trackers. Every day, your smartphone is tracking where you are, how long you were there, who you’ve contacted, and what you’ve searched for.
You don’t have to use a smartphone yourself to be affected. Anything, at any time, can be recorded by users of smart devices. Whether it’s a police stop, someone helping a homeless person, children playing at the park, or anyone going about his or her normal business of the day, it might be filmed by someone else and transmitted to anyone or anywhere in the world.
While there are laws specifying that someone cannot record you in your private home or in certain federal buildings, the general rule of thumb is that anything happening in a public area may be recorded.
Aside from recording, however, there are reasons why it might be unethical for companies, the government and others to access the private details of the way that you use your smartphone. Criminals can hack into your device to find your address, your bank account login credentials, or other sensitive information that could be used to harm you or your finances. Companies can tailor their marketing to your habits: This also happens when you use your personal computer on the internet, but many people do not go out of their way to protect their smartphones the way they protect their computers.
The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have all taken steps to enforce laws about privacy as it pertains to smartphones.
Understanding the ethics of data collection can help you keep your information as private as possible in this digital age.