What’s the cost and value of personal privacy online?


This week I read about two interesting uses of patient data.

FastCompany reports on a new app that helps health care providers track patients ups and downs and anamolies…

Ginger.io, a startup founded by Madan and MIT alum Karan Singh that we first covered after it won the Sanofi-aventis Data Design Diabetes challenge last year, is leveraging smartphone data to help people with a variety of ailments–including diabetes and heart disease–better manage their moods. And this week, it picked up $6.5 million in a Series A funding round led by Khosla Ventures.

The Ginger.io app runs silently in the background of participants’ smartphones, collecting text message habits, call frequency, and location. All that data is analyzed and sent back to both patients via the app and doctors and researchers via an online dashboard. If you suddenly stop calling your friends, or don’t go to work for a few days, that could be a sign to your doctors that they need to check in on you more aggressively.

Doctors also have the option of sending out simple surveys–i.e. how did you sleep last night on a scale of 1 to 10?–using the app daily, weekly, or using any other time interval. (Privacy advocates can rest easy, the app doesn’t track who is being called or texted, just that the calls and texts are taking place. It doesn’t track exact location, either, but it can guess whether a place is work or home based on the time of day and length of stay.)

The Wall Street Journal reports on firms that develop and manage digital medical implants are doing and not doing with the data they collect…

The U.S. has strict privacy laws guaranteeing people access to traditional health files. But implants and other new technologies—including smartphone apps and over-the-counter monitors—are testing the very definition of medical records.

Medtronic says federal rules prohibit giving Ms. Hubbard’s data to anyone but her doctor and hospital. “Our customers are physicians and hospitals,” said Elizabeth Hoff, general manager of Medtronic’s data business. Medtronic would need regulatory approval to give patients the data, she said. It hasn’t sought approval because “we don’t have this massive demand.”

At the same time, companies including Medtronic are pushing to turn the data into money. Ms. Hoff said the company is contemplating selling the data to health systems or insurers that could use it to predict diseases and possibly lower their costs. At a July industry event, a senior Medtronic executive, Ken Riff, called these kinds of data “the currency of the future.”

These examples spur an interesting discussion of what we’re willing as citizens (or patients) to give up for technology and what we’re willing as a society to accept in terms of rights and responsibilities regarding personal privacy. Earlier today I posted about teens and online privacy. Are we sending them mixed messages when we ask them not to mention their hometown online – yet, tools are being developed that will broadcast your medical details, with or without your permission? Yes, in the example of the implant we’re talking about giving up privacy in trade for potential lifesaving technology – but to a teen that may be akin to giving up privacy for potential One Direction tickets.

Just something we may need to consider both as individuals and as a society – what’s the cost and value of personal privacy online?