I really appreciate and respect the journalists who are trying to explain to their audiences why location tracking isn’t a panacea to Covid–19. But holy hell is it ever tiring to schedule multiple interviews a day to walk each of them—and their audiences—through the efficacy and human rights issues linked with such surveillance.
Mobile device tracking only starts being a real possibility when absolutely massive testing is possible, especially when up to 50% of asymptotic persons can spread the disease without knowing they are infected. And even then there are strong indications—such as from Korea—that a multifaceted approach is required that needs to be pre-planned and -coordinated before an outbreak.
Diverting telecommunications engineers, now, from better securing networks or bringing networking capacity online towards developing surveillance systems of limited effectiveness is about the worst idea that could be promoted right now. Unless, as a society, we really want to develop superior surveillance systems that will certainly be repurposed by law enforcement and security agencies, that is.
This has been a particularly grey week — the weather has been mostly overcast and slightly rainy — and it’s had all the hallmark effects on my mood and attitude as it did when I lived on the west coast of Canada. With hindsight, I can see that some of the depressive funks I fell into while doing my PhD were the result of the weather, combined with diet and work/life imbalance. And when I was on the west coast, I discovered that getting in some significant amount of walking each day was what it took to fight through those funks.
Cue this week, and the solution has been getting into an exercise room and just doing work I didn’t really want to do, but which I intellectually knew would improve my perspective on life as soon as I was done my circuit. Unsurprisingly, each day that I dragged myself to exercise helped to improve my next day. In the UK, this has been taken a step further, and persons who are experiencing seasonal affective disorder, anti-social behaviour, or other mental health challenges are being prescribed exercise, socialization, and related activities that are meant to naturally modify the chemistry of their bodies and brains. No pills or drugs required.
It strikes me that such prescriptions could have a range of positive outcomes. First and foremost, for those who ‘fill’ the scripts, they might derive relief from the symptoms affecting them. That’s a clear win. But, second, it would have the effect of pushing people who might avoid certain kinds of physical activity to be there, with others, and realize that the portrayals of ‘fit’ or ‘active’ people in the movies and television tend to be drastically out of step with reality. I know that in my own case, I had this idealized idea of what people looked like when they exercised, how hard they worked, and so forth. But by going and exercising I’ve improved upon my own sense of my body by, first, doing some exercise but, second, seeing that the persons who are exercising look an awful lot like me.
In other words, developing a pretty regular exercise routine has had the dual effect of improving my mental health by just pushing my body, as well as improving my sense of bodily self-worth by destigmatizing my (pretty normal) body. I imagine that were more and more people gently pushed to get into workout rooms, running groups, or other socialized exercise spaced they, too, would experience that similarly destigmatizing experience.
I’ve been putting a lot of thought into how to structure my life, not just on a day to day basis, but with the intent of accomplishing something meaningful this year. Some of that relates to personal projects I want to pull off.1 But perhaps the most important thing I want to do this year is develop a really boring habit.
Mike Vardy wrote about his intent improve his personal fitness this year. His description of past attempts to become fit and how that differs from his current behaviours resonated with me. He wrote:
When I was trying to achieve a “body for life” before, I was single and doing it mainly to improve my physique for any potential ladies that I may wind up dating. I wasn’t really doing it for myself.
In contrast, this time he’s doing:
it for myself — and my family. My wife deserves to have a husband who’s in decent shape, and my kids deserve to have a father who can keep up with them. When my youngest turns thirteen, I’ll be fifty. I want to be able to roughhouse with him at that age and not feel it for weeks afterward. I’d also like to give myself the best shot at seeing my kids’ grandkids. Without exercise and proper diet, that just ain’t going to happen
In the past I tried to become more fit by taking it to the extreme. I also felt I had to hide what I was doing to avoid recriminations from family and people I lived with. I exercised when no one was around, or up, and hid the fact I was going on long challenging walks to avoid all kinds of hurtful commentary: getting fit was something that people were bemused about, at best, and openly mocked, at worst. I don’t have that kind of negative energy around me now and, instead, I have the support of people I love.2
I don’t know that my motives are quite the same as Mike: I’m not a father, and don’t intend to become one, nor am I doing this because I think someone else deserves my body in one format or another. No, I’m doing this purely because I would like to be in a situation where I can just say ‘sure, let’s climb that mountain’ and get going. I want to be able to hop on a bike and cycle across one of Canada’s smaller provinces because it would be neat to take that ride. And, more importantly, I want to get in the habit that regular active exercise is just so routine that it’s a normal, established, and boring part of my life.
Tim Cook was asked in the Apple earning call that took place in February about the company had considered whether, and if so how, their battery replacement program might affect replacement rates. The implied comment was the replacements might reduce the likelihood that consumers would upgrade to the new versions of devices, on grounds that some upgrades had historically taken place because people bought new phones as a result of their old ones slowing down or their batteries not providing adequate charge to get through a day. Cook responded that Apple:
did not consider in any way, shape, or form what it would do to upgrade rates. We did it because we thought it was the right thing to do for our customers. I don’t know what effect it will have for our customers. It was not in our thought process of deciding to do what we’ve done.
This is a great answer. Though I do suspect that the battery replacement program will delay some upgrades, I don’t know that such a delay would be inherently bad for the company. Jason Snell wrote that the iPhone 8 — not the X — was a really amazing phone for most people because they tended to be coming from devices that were release two or more years ago. As a result, people that were coming from iPhone 6, 6s, and 5s devices didn’t just get the updates of the iPhone 8 but also all the updates that came to the iPhone 7 and, in some cases, iPhone 6s.
In effect, people who waited three or more years to update ended up being wowed by all of the features in the new iPhone. These are everyday users who really do use words like ‘magic’ and literally utter ‘wow’ when things happen. They laugh with joy when Siri just does something right, or they have calendar items automatically added from their mail. These are the everyday consumers that Apple is making its money from.
These normal users are the ones that are going to be blown away whenever they do an upgrade, and are going to be especially appreciative of all the incremental updates that take place in the extra year they might delay an upgrade. They’re going to talk to their friends and family and co-workers. They might also talk about how the battery situation sucked while, simultaneously, mentioning how no other company offers a similar replacement program. Probably the only equivalent they’ll be able to think of was Samsung’s global recall of devices that were literally exploding in people’s hands.
Quotation of the Week
“By retreating into ourselves, it looks as if we are the enemies of others, but our solitary moments are in reality a homage to the richness of social existence. Unless we’ve had time alone, we can’t be who we would like to be around our fellow humans. We won’t have original opinions. We won’t have lively and authentic perspectives. We’ll be – in the wrong way – a bit like everyone else.”
Both groups had significant improvements in body composition, fitness, physical activity and diet, with no significant difference between groups, they said.
In total, 75 per cent of participants completed the study.
Estimated average weights for the group wearing trackers were 212 pounds at study entry and 205 pounds at 24 months, resulting in an average weight loss of about 7.7 pounds.
In comparison, those in the website group started out at 210 pounds when the study began and weighed in at 197 pounds at 24 months, for an average loss of 13 pounds.
Still, Jakicic said in an email: “We should not send the message that these wearable technologies do not help with weight loss — there were some in our study for whom it made a difference.
I would argue that the ‘advantage’ that the trackers offer is to motivate people who otherwise might be less mindful on a regular basis to increase their daily activity. The headline of the article directly contradicts the point made by the study’s author: that the message should not be that wearables do not help with weight loss.
Perhaps one of the broader issues is that weight loss is predominantly associated with dietary changes. Fitness trackers focus on activity. As such, meeting fitness tracker goals (absent food monitoring) can lead to reduced weight losses as compared to those engaged in more comprehensive health and diet tracking.
The wristband toys given away in the fast food chain’s signature Happy Meals were intended to help get kids moving. Instead, the toys have gotten company officials racing to issue a recall after the devices were found to burn and irritate kids’ skin. So far, there have been 70 reports of injuries from the colorful gadgets, including seven reports of blistering burns.
Even dedicated fitness tracker companies have problems with their trackers. Fitbit, as an example, had to recall their fitness trackers a few years back because of manufacturing problems.
So while we should wonder what happened in this instance, I’d bet that it’s a combination of the low cost of the fitness trackers linked with relatively little testing to ensure there wasn’t nickle or other allergetic materials.
Getting better at something without feedback is very hard. Imagine practising penalty kicks by kicking the ball and then turning around before you saw where it landed; a year or two later someone would visit you at home and tell you where your kicks ended up. This is the kind of feedback loop we contend with when it comes to our privacy disclosures.
Kashmir Hill wrote an article last week about how Google Now is informing some Nexus owners of how active they have been over the past week. She rightfully notes that this is really just making transparent the tracking that smartphones do all the time, though putting it to (arguably) good and helpful use. This said, Google’s actions raise a series of interesting issues and questions.
To begin, Google’s actions are putting a ‘friendly face’ on locational tracking. Their presentation of this data also reveals some of the ways that Google can – and apparently is – using locational data: for calculating not just distance but, based on the rate of movement between locations, the means by which users are getting from point A to B. This isn’t surprising,given that Google has had to develop algorithms to determine if subscribers’ phones are moving in cars (in fast or slow traffic) for some of their traffic alerts systems. Determining whether you’re walking/biking instead of driving is presumably just a happy outcome of that algorithmic determination. That said: is this mode of analyzing movement and location necessarily something that users want Google to be processing? Can they have been genuinely expected to consent to this surveillance – barring in jargon-ridden Terms of Service and Privacy Policies – and, moreover, can Now users get both raw data and the categories into which their locational data has been ‘sorted’ by Google? Can they have both sets of data fully, and permanently, expunged from Google databases?
Friendliness – or not, if you see this mode of tracking and notification as problematic – aside, I think that Google’s alerts speak to the important role that ambient technology can play in encouraging public fitness. In the interests of disclosure, I’ve used a non-GPS-based system to track the relative levels of my activity for the past six or seven months. It’s been the single best $100 that I’ve spent in the past five years and led to very important, and positive, changes in my personal health. I specifically chose a non-GPS system because I worry about the implications of linking health/fitness information with where individuals physically move: I see such data as a potential gold mine for health insurers and employers. This is where I see the primary (from my perspective) concerns: how can individuals be assured that GPS-related fitness information won’t be made available to health insurers who are setting Android users’ health premiums? How can they prevent the information from leaking to employers, or anyone else that might have an interest in this data?
Past this issue of data flow control I actually think that making basic fitness information very, very clear to people is a good idea. A comfortable one? No, not necessarily. No one really wants to see how little they may have been active. But I’m not certain that this mode of fitness analysis is necessarily creepy; it can definitely be unpleasant, however.
Of course individuals need to be able to opt-out of this kind of tracking if they’d like. Really, it should be opt-in (from a privacy perspective) though from a public health perspective I can’t help but wonder if it shouldn’t be opt-out. This is an area where there are competing public goods, and unlike a debate around security and privacy (which tends to feature pretty drawn out, well entrenched, battle lines) I’m not sure we’ve had a good discussion about the nature of locational tracking as it relates to basic facets of public fitness and, by extension, public health.
In the end, this is actually a tracking technology that I’m largely on the fence about, and my core reason for having problems with it are (a) I don’t think people had any real idea that they had opted-in to the fitness analysis; (b) I don’t trust third-parties not to get access to this data for purposes at odds with the data subject’s own interests. If both (a) and (b) could be resolved, however, I think I’d have a much harder time disagreeing with such ‘fitness alerts’ being integrated with smartphones given the significant problems of obesity amongst Western citizens.