Carrier IQ and Facebook pose the least of your privacy threats

Users are regularly signing up for Big Brother-like tech that could result in the loss of insurance coverage or worse

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It's not just Progressive. There's been a lot of excitement in the health care industry over monitoring devices that can make sure people are taking their medication, eating right, and even exercising. If you do what you're supposed to, you may get a discount, such as on medical insurance, a measure now being considered for employer-sponsored plans. If you don't, you may get nagged, pay more, or be denied coverage. The Orwellian name for such control approaches is "wellness incentives."

These approaches can be appealing, as they can provide good feedback and education mechanisms for individuals. The problem is that private companies -- insurers, hospitals, employers -- have this information and can act on it. Because people consent (whether they have a real choice is another issue), the organizations are free to use it.

These approaches have been in place for years in some industries. For example, delivery companies have long monitored where their vehicles go and how long they stop anywhere. The goal is to keep drivers from getting paid while goofing off, to pack as many deliveries as possible in a day, to use the least amount of fuel possible, and to reduce the need for vehicle maintenance. These are all desirable, positive results. But the new breed of monitors are tied to the people directly, not to company property.

Smartphone spyware lets employers track where employees go, such as to manage field service or sales staff. But as people have their smartphones with them when off the clock, their personal movements can also be monitored. Do you want your boss knowing what you do off hours? Even if it's innocuous, it's no one else's business.

And the tech being developed for medical monitoring -- pillboxes that track when you take your medicine or monitors (such as pedometers) that measure physical responses to indicate exercise -- are even more problematic. They can be great aids, such as to remind people it's time for their medicine or to automatically order refills. But when connected to insurers or others who have a selfish interest in your behavior and the tools (such as decisions over rates) to manage your behavior, they become the kinds of control mechanisms that despots everywhere hanker for. Worse, the patina of user acceptance and lack of accountability make them very hard to dislodge. Consider how many decades insurers have been playing redlining games through various means, despite government regulations.

Many people rightfully decry "nanny government," such as San Francisco's silly proposal to force radiation ratings to be posted on cellphones. But the more pernicious threat are nanny corporations that you can't vote out of office or avoid. How many broadband providers can you choose from, for example? How many medical insurers?

This is the privacy invasion that should really get people riled up and taking to the streets. European-style privacy protections would help quite a bit, but the ultimate protection is to vote with your wallet -- look what a fairly small protest did to rapacious banks like Bank of America this fall that tried to add user fees to recoup their ill-gotten gains from the real estate and securities bubble they caused in the mid-2000s.

Sign off of Facebook permanently. Switch to a provider that doesn't spy on you secretly or directly through spy tech they entice you to accept. Your company works hard to keep spyware off its network. You need to do the same with your "network."

This story, "Carrier IQ and Facebook pose the least of your privacy threats," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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