Episode  MSP68  Data Babies: The Rise of the Planet of the Tracked
Episode  MSP68  Data Babies: The Rise of the Planet of the Tracked
From the moment of conception to the time they die, the next generation of children may be tracked, monitored and surveilled every minute of every day.
Produced and co-presented by Jeff Sandhu for BFM89.9
These shows are dictated to and transcribed by machines, and hurriedly edited by a human. Apologies for the typos and grammar flaws.
When I first saw that today’s show had Babies in the title, I assumed it had to be a joke. Matt Armitage is not known for being child friendly. In fact, I’m fairly sure that he thinks they should be farmed. Or grown in vats, like clean meat. But it would seem he’s genuinely worried about generations still to come.
Matt. Data Babies and trackable humans. What’s going on?
· You sound like one of those local TV news anchors in the US doing a hard hitting interview.
· Mrs McGillicutty’s slipped on ice because no one salter her path. Here to answer our questions is city representative, Jeff Sandhu. Councillor, what’s going on?
It really must be hurting you to devote an entire episode to children.
· I prefer to think of them as boxed in adults.
· In that you keep them in a box until they’re 18.
· I had one of those weird realisations over the weekend.
· I’ve been listening to and watching a bunch of anti-vaxxer information over the last couple of weeks.
· To the point where parents are turning down routine vitamin K injections for newborns in some countries, while in other places we’re seeing the return of infectious diseases like measles because fewer kids are being inoculated against them
This doesn’t sound as though it’s related to data…
· Because there’s a weird corollary.
· At a time when parents are rejecting medical interventions for their kids in increasing numbers, ignoring the science that shows these interventions lead to better health outcomes.
· Yet, despite the concerns people have about data privacy with Facebook, Google and the scores of apps and companies that track our habits and movements every second of the day.
· Despite those facts, plenty of people are willing to use services that offer them utility in helping to raise their kids in exchange for a very rich stream of data.
What are we talking about when we say data about kids? A lot of parents are very careful about what they post on social media. If their kids have social media accounts, they keep them locked down and private. [Dramatic] What’s Going On?
· I think we should make this a regular theme of the shows.
· Either that or we get Kent Brockman in to guest host for you from time to time.
I’ll be away again in a few weeks time. I can look into getting Kent Brockman as a replacement, but if not it’ll be Richard Bradbury.
· There you go then. Same same, either way.
Where does the data story start?
· Sometimes it starts before conception.
· I know that isn’t a place we often go to on MSP.
· We’re more likely to talk about sex robots or self-replicating AI than human biology.
· Health tracking apps are an increasingly mundane part of our lives.
· And I use the terms mundane deliberately.
In the sense of the normalisation of the technology?
· Yeah, there was a lot of talk about wearables and sleep cycles and all this stuff our phones do.
· And for most of us, it’s something we set up when we buy a new phone, track for a bit and then forget it’s all set up.
· You might not be checking the stats, but that smartwatch is still recording your heart rate, and making reasonably accurate guesses at your level of fitness, how much sleep you’re getting.
And because we don’t go online anymore?
· Yes. We don’t go online because we’re always online.
· We charge our phones and tablets and computers, but other than my wife, we never actually turn them off.
· They’re mundane because we pay them so little attention.
· But they’re always there. Listening. Watching. Noticing.
How often are our devices sending information back to various servers?
· When we did the episode a couple of weeks ago about living without the tech companies.
· Well, today is almost the opposite of that.
· This is about raising people as data streams.
· One of the things I didn’t cover in that episode was how often Gizmodo’s Kash Hill devices were pinging servers and sending them data packets.
I guess most people imagine it would be a few times an hour, like the push services that pull down information from our inboxes or other apps?
· Honestly, the frequency of these communications was something I hadn’t thought about.
· Hill mentioned that her devices tried to contact Facebook’s servers a massive 15,000 times during the week she blocked it.
· Remember, she isn’t using the app. So she’s pretty sure that those pings are coming from the Facebook trackers that allow you to like and share a lot of webpages.
· Despite that being a scarily huge number, it pales into insignificance when compared to Amazon and its incredibly powerful AWS.
· Her devices made an incredible 300,000 attempts to contact AWS servers over the course of a week.
Do you think many people are aware of how frequently our data moves?
· I don’t think so. And certainly, you don’t often think of that data tracking in real time.
· You know it’s tracking what you do in real time. But we probably think it offloads that information maybe once a week or a little bit more.
· Certainly not thousands of times a day. And potentially millions of times a week.
· Remember, this is just for Facebook and AWS servers.
How does this bring us back to conception?
· Because in a way we’re being groomed.
· Not by any specific company. But by the data industry in general.
· Giving away our information is every day. Commonplace. Boring.
· So we don’t care.
· We go back to that Apple adage: there’s an app for that.
· A lot of women use apps to track their periods.
· But there’s been huge growth over the past couple of years in fertility apps to help women conceive.
· And some of these apps also extend into the pregnancy itself.
So the baby is being tracked before it’s born?
· You’re building a data picture.
· You’re recording your own data on your phone and wearables.
· Everything from blood pressure readings to ultrasound scans.
· Google’s probably knows what your new kid will look like at birth.
· I mean, all babies look the same, but you know what I mean.
· For all we know Google has an AI that takes photos of the mother and the father, compares it to the ultrasound picture and can extrapolate what kind of features the baby will have.
And the parents=to-be are probably buying a lot of that baby stuff online, or with a credit card, or a loyalty card?
· Yeah. That’s enough to let companies like Amazon or Google know if they should be targeting you with basic or high-end prenatal vitamins, or whether you’re more likely to buy a McLaren stroller or gorilla tape the baby to an old skateboard and a broom handle.
· You might even be inputting your birth plan, the hospital and your doctor’s details.
Did you have to Google what kind of doctor delivers babies?
· I know what an OB/GYN is, thank you.
For the record, during that last question, Matt nodded at me to indicate that he did have to Google baby doctor…
· Yeah, well, if any of you need recommendations for a good lobstertrician, let me know.
Did you just say lobstertrician?
· Who knows. You’ll have to rewind to find out.
· There is a really good lobstertrician at a seafood restaurant near my house.
· Anyway, the point is, that by the time your baby is born, it already has an enormous data trail.
· And for many new parents, that only continues once your bring the baby home.
We’re talking about those on-all-the-time monitors?
· There are even wearables that range from socks to other strap-on devices.
· So you can monitor heart rate, temperature, sleep rate, feeding cycles.
· Some even pair with devices the mother can wear
· A lot of the apps will go as far as to let you record how many grams of milk the baby takes at each feed.
· And how that correlates to it putting on weight and growing.
I can imagine that would all be very useful information…
· Sure. But, as much utility as they have, most of these apps and devices aren’t marketed as medical or health devices.
· Because that’s an area that’s strictly controlled in most countries.
· So, we shouldn’t over-rely on the correlations of the data.
· Or assume that temperature or heart monitors are 100% accurate.
Which means that for some parents, there could be both an overshare anxiety and a FOMO anxiety at the same time?
· One of the things most parents to new-borns agree on is that they don’t have enough time.
· And while some of these apps are plug and play, a lot of them ask you to manually input stuff like feeding data.
· So you’re adding another level of tasks and pressure to time-poor parents.
· Because there’s that feeling that you’re failing, that you could be putting your child’s health at risk if you don’t complete the picture.
· One article I read on this – I think it was in The Guardian – likened these apps to raising a human Tamagotchi.
· Which makes me really glad I don’t have kids.
· My Tamagotchi’s rarely made it through their first night on earth.
After the break. Tracking your child to adulthood. Here on MSP.
We’re talking about Data Babies and the first generation of trackable humans on MSP today. Before the break we were talking about apps and tech that ask for a lot of information about your new baby.
Matt, should we worry about sharing this information?
· Yes. A lot of the companies in this space will tell you that data is anonymized.
· Or for something like streaming video of a baby monitor it might be ring-fenced on a cloud, or stored locally.
· But bear in mind you are giving always on video and audio to a third party.
· And we know how companies like Amazon use devices like Alexa to help refine your experience across Amazon platforms.
· So, no matter how trustworthy the company is, how committed they are to your family’s privacy, this is still a treasure chest of information.
You’re worried about hacking?
· That’s one risk. A genuine one. Nothing online is 100% secure.
· But it’s also about the nature of data itself.
· The technology space is a very fast moving and fluid one.
· That company that behaves so ethically might not be in business tomorrow morning.
· Or it might be bought over by a bigger player.
· And we all know that the terms and conditions we agree to with many of these services can be quite complex and opaque.
· So there may not be any reason for the new owner to respect the privacy you previously enjoyed.
· Once you give data away – there’s really no way to get it back.
· And when that data is a brand new human being, that’s worth thinking twice about.
Of course, today’s show isn’t just about the baby part. We’re talking about people who can be tracked from the cradle to the grave.
· Absolutely. I don’t want to go into the cause and effect part.
· But the way people are having families today is quite different to a couple of generations ago.
· People start families later. We tend not to live quite so close to relatives and that kind of familial support network.
· Those networks are still relatively tight in this part of the world, but in the West, people are now the age that their grandparents were when they have kids.
· It used to be that a baby’s grandparents were in their 40s, now, quite often, their parents are.
· So that support network is further away and may have age related health issues of its own.
· So parents are much more reliant on technology to bring their kids up.
You mean Google?
· Yeah. A lot of parents use Google and Youtube for tutorials, because, that’s just what people do.
· When I want to figure something out the first thing I check is to see if anyone has put up a YouTube explainer.
· And 8 out of 10 times they have.
· The question about whether it’s accurate is another conversation.
· But those Google searches and Youtube videos – and I don’t know about you, but I get asked to sign in to my Google account on YT a couple of times a week – making sure that you are still you – means that those companies have a lot of data, both about you as a parent and about the health of your child, its stage of development.
· A lot of information you may not think twice about.
But kids aren’t in that parents: ‘panic I need help’ stage forever. Surely the kids will fall off the data grid at some point?
· At that beginning stage it’s mostly the parent creating the data about their kids.
· And that does continue.
· For example, all those lovely photos that proud parents share to Instagram and Facebook.
· Those companies know what your kids look like.
· Those photos are probably helping to train the ageing AIs we know some of them are working on.
· If they can’t already, they will be able to predict with reasonable certainty what your children will look like at 20, 30, 40 etc.
· But the main data flow is from the kids themselves.
Apps and tablets?
· And phones. How many of our listeners have kids below ten who have their own phones?
· You tell yourself it’s a necessity, but human children have managed to stay alive without smartphones for millennia.
· So yeah, those apps parents sit them in front of are generating data.
· How quick your kids response times are. How often they get simple language or mathematics problems right or wrong.
· How effective they are at problem solving.
· Even those limiters you set for them on Youtube and Netflix. Those accounts are directly telegraphing the tastes and habits of your kids.
· And actually shaping them, in terms of the results that are served up to them.
And then there’s the education itself…
· There are loads of online educational services out there. Khan academy is one of the most prominent.
· And many of these services are vying to be brought into actual schoolrooms as learning aids.
· That means commercial companies have an actual blueprint of your childrens’ learning and development.
· And as I said earlier, those companies may operate with the noblest of intent.
· But what happens if they get swallowed up by a giant? Where does that data go?
· Whose servers is it moved to?
And then it gets to the point where the kids want to have their own online presence?
· We know there’s a generation of kids who are rebelling against the oversharing of their parents.
· The kids who aren’t on FB or Instagram.
· Who manage their own networks in private messaging apps.
· But those kids are not outside the world of data.
· In fact, they’re probably more tightly integrated than their parents.
· For them, their automatic response is to head online to google or into an app where their data is logged, mined and tagged back to them.
· Then there are the e-wallets.
Are we heading into conspiracy theory territory?
· No. At least I hope not.
· When you look at some of the leading ewallet services, or you look at what a company like Grab is trying to do.
· You’re curating almost a mini-Internet within that app.
· You have retail, food delivery, taxi and transport services.
· You can move money around. There are increasingly social network like functionality.
· File and photo sharing.
· All of this tightly linked to who you are and what you spend.
So you think these apps are too wide in scope?
· It’s not about that. It’s about knowing what the apps are.
· What they do.
· And making the informed decision about where they fit into our lives.
· And they serve as a useful example because everything is so tightly integrated.
· It’s easier to form that mental picture of what they could become.
· That’s not to say that other tech companies, with services that aren’t so closely integrated aren’t also forming a similar picture of your behaviour.
· Amazon is increasingly operating in the financial sphere. And there are rumours swirling that Facebook is set to launch its own crypto currency in the not too distant future.
· A lot of these companies aere getting much more ruthless about channeling you into their ecosystem.
You’ve painted a picture of the direction that we’re heading in, in terms of data collection and use. What do you see as the dangers facing this generation?
· Genuinely, freedom of movement, freedom of speech.
· At the moment, this data loop is being completed with very few governments.
· It’s frightening enough that companies know every tiny detail about your life.
· Put governments into that mix and they will know everything about you.
· Every place you’ve been since you were a child.
· What your political and social views are.
· What your education level is.
How will they know who you’ve spoken to?
· Because of all the location tracking apps.
· They know who you’re friends are. Who you speak to online and probably on PM.
· All an algorithm has to do is figure out who in your circle is also at the same place at the same time as you.
· Not to mention you probably have your digital concierge switched on, so those conversations, even if their content isn’t analysed, the voiceprints might be.
It could potentially be a world without secrets?
· Not a world without secrets.
· But a world where individuals aren’t able to have secrets.
· Where everything they say is logged. Everything they eat.
You mentioned a few shows ago that tracking is reaching such a point that we don’t need to be implanted or barcoded to be tracked.
· Most of us would rather leave the house without our pants on than leave without a phone.
· When we think about a surveillance state, we think about rooms full of state operatives scanning monitors and flagging people for follow up.
· The typical sci fi movie type scene.
· The reality is, we’re doing the hard work for them. We’re voluntarily uploading all that information where machines can analyse it and send it down to the people policing us.
Couldn’t you argue that all this tracking will make us nicer and more law abiding?
· You only have to watch a few episodes of Black Mirror to see the pitfalls in that approach.
· How boring and fake the world would be.
· We already complain about the search for virality that is becoming embedded in many of our Instagrammed lives.
· All our interactions would be about
· We talk about the threat of automation – it’s arguable that we will be acting more machine like than the robots.
To finish off. How likely is it that this will happen?
· In some senses it already is.
· We’ve talked about China’s social credit system before.
· The idea that you get good citizen points and rewards for being a model citizen.
· A recent report on that system – again in the Guardian – states that millions of people have already been barred from buying plane and train tickets.
· Penalties for antisocial behaviour can also include being prevented from buying insurance, using public transport, or buying property.
· As I always try to end it: this may be the kind of society you want.
· You may see the benefits in being a data point. In which case, great.
· But if it isn’t, figure out how these systems work, how they impact your life, and do something about it.