My ‘big data’ identity crisis

Chad Michael Van Alstin,
Features Editor

I was sitting in the doctor’s office with my annual ear infection when the interrogator (or “nurse”) entered my room to give me my pre-exam screening. After checking my temperature, weight, height, heart rate, blood pressure, and blood oxygen levels, the real tough questions began – and strangely, not a single one of them had anything to do with my throbbing ear.

After questions related to my recent sexual activity, sleeping habits, past drug use, and night-time glasses of wine, I suddenly felt like I had a lot of problems. I was beaten back.

“Look, can I just get some antibiotics for my ear?” I pleaded. But it didn’t stop there. The next round of questions came at me:

“Are you a smoker?”

This was an easy one. I rarely smoke tobacco at all, and I despise the smell of cigarettes. “Absolutely not,” I responded.

“Have you ever tried cigarettes?”

“Well, sure, but that doesn’t mean…”

It was too late. She was typing again. And there it was for the world to see: Chad Van Alstin – Smoker. Insomniac. Social deviant. All along I was a rock star, and I didn’t even know it.

All of the answers I gave were honest, and all of this information is kept private between my doctor and me, right? So, what’s the problem? In a world ruled by insurance premiums – where the price of care is used to alter behavior through financial punishment – the truth can be costly. By gathering my answers and recklessly labeling me a nicotine-addicted pariah, the nurse had planted information about me into the everlasting digital realm – and there’s no telling where it may pop up.

Granted, most of the time I add all that incriminating information myself by using a smartphone loaded with apps on a daily basis. And now that providers are encouraging me to use some of these apps – apps that track my posture, caloric intake, activity level, heart rhythm, and just about every move I make – it seems that data related to every aspect of my personal life is purportedly helping to keep me healthy. But at what point does all of this become a little too much?

All this data being gathered is by no means ineffectual. There are entire companies established to archive, sift through, and organize data related to the lifestyle and choices of individuals. Somewhere on a hard drive right now is a portrait of each and every one of us. This is the ‘big data’ era, one where companies will buy information about their clients to get a better idea of who they are.

Admittedly, most of this data isn’t going to be used for nefarious purposes. But is it too much of a stretch to imagine employers buying profiles of employees to see if they, too, are rockstars – whether it’s true or not?

Is it paranoid to think insurance companies may jack premiums, all because some nurse checked a box declaring you a “smoker”? Unfortunately, it’s already happening. And good luck proving you’re innocent … you chimney.

I’d like to believe that HIPAA laws and the collective ethics of the healthcare industry will protect my privacy, but at this point, doling out personal information to anyone is a bit like posting a photo online – you never know where it will end up, and deleting it is just about impossible. We’re slowly building a world where computer algorithms determine our value in a marketplace – and I’m waiting for someone to convince me that such a high cost is worth the touted price cuts and improved services.

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