The FDA has approved a digital pill that monitors whether patients are actually following doctor’s orders. It’s basically a tiny little tattletale that will alert your doctor and also your spouse or daughter or friend when you neglect to take your prescribed medication. The pill in question is the optimistically named Abilify, a drug often prescribed to patients diagnosed with depression, schizophrenia, and/or bipolar disorder. Drug companies are already thinking about all the other ways they might deploy this technology. And insurance companies are considering offering incentives to patients who agree to the monitoring. Call me paranoid, but no thanks.
I am leery of this sort of “smart” technology. I don’t want a monitor in my home listening to every word I say and ordering paper towels off the internet. I don’t want to start receiving push marketing from advertisers that are fed the intimate details of my life. Yes, I drink too much coffee. No, I don’t want a Nespresso.
The issue is one of privacy, of course, but also trust. I don’t trust the powers that be to use my information responsibly or to protect it. Take these mail-in DNA tests that are now offered by numerous companies. You provide a swab of spit and they use your genetic material to tell you if you’re Irish or French, prone to diabetes or breast cancer, really related to your sister or swapped at birth. I mean, it’s intriguing, sure, but what will they do with your genetic information? Will they someday sell it to insurance companies who can charge you higher premiums (or refuse coverage) based on a predisposition for high blood pressure? Will they sell it to law enforcement as a huge DNA database? Will they sell your information to private detectives or prospective spouses or employers or reality show producers? I know they say they won’t do these things, but what stops them?
Spoiler alert: nothing.
The law has not caught up to technology and, at the pace it’s moving, it never will. Look no further than the foreign money poured into our election cycle via social media for an example of how the law fails us. If someone places a political ad on television or the radio or in the newspaper, it must contain a line disclosing who paid for the ad. Even this requirement is not perfect. Thanks to PACs and Super PACs, anyone can organize a shady group and call it something like Americans for a Better America, which is not a lot of info. But at least it’s something. Ads on Facebook or Twitter or other platforms do not require such disclosures. Anyone, anywhere, for any reason, can create an ad that looks like a random post and send it straight to the people they know will be most gullible to their particular message. Before you know it, the ad is trending and has taken on a life of its own. And no one who likes it or forwards it or comments on it has any idea they are passing along Russian propaganda.
If that’s not bad enough, Facebook and Twitter make note of our every click and follow us as we browse the internet. Did you linger for an extra two seconds on that pair of leather riding boots? Well you’ll be getting online ads for riding boots for the next week at least. You may even receive a flyer in the mail from Riding Boots ‘R’ Us.
When people talk about the information age, they generally are talking about how we have so much access to information these days. No longer must we rely on a few hours of local and national news each day, or subscribe only to our hometown newspaper. Now the newspapers of every city are at our fingertips. They sit right beside all of the junk sites that claim to offer up news, but really offer up slanted lies and manufactured outrage. Yes, I’m talking about Breitbart. The really valuable information of our times, however, is the information we willingly give up about ourselves and our families.
Remember the talking Barbie doll from a few years ago? People were outraged when they discovered she not only talked, she recorded children’s conversations and used them for marketing purposes. If Barbie is behaving in such a nefarious way, why would we trust Big Pharma or Amazon or Google or Ancestry.com or Facebook or Twitter or Apple to behave more ethically?
They won’t, not unless the law requires it. Even then, I expect they’ll find some loophole to use our personal preferences and information against us. I don’t want a smart home and I don’t want to send my DNA out through the mail and I damn sure don’t want to swallow a tiny monitor for any reason. I have ad blockers on my browser and I’ve taken to turning off location services on my phone unless I’m actually lost and need to get directions. I suspect it makes no difference. I imagine my bits and bytes are floating out to advertisers and marketers and politicians and all sorts of information gathering services.
Maybe I really am paranoid (I hear there’s a pill for that) or maybe I’ve watched too many episodes of Black Mirror, but this does not feel like progress to me.