Thinking about getting grandma or grandpa a techno-gadget this holiday season? Wired seniors may be the way of the future, especially among those 60 to 70 years old. Nowadays, about 80 per cent of senior residents in the United States own cellphones, and about 42 per cent of them own smartphones. At least two thirds of Canadian seniors use the internet.
So, maybe you should give the newest gadget to baby boomers in your life. Except that, according to the Pew Research Centre’s Internet Project, these older internet users may be “sitting ducks” for technology-facilitated invasions of privacy.
Raised in a time when privacy was protected by the courts, older adults may not understand the extent to which technology opens the door to Big Brother. Canadian courts have long protected the privacy of body and home, denying even law enforcement the right to surveillance in homes and private spaces such as bathrooms.
But new technologies may now breach these boundaries. “Wearable devices collect data about you and your condition, activities and day-to-day choices.”
Information collected is part of the big data being gathered through many of our daily activities. In a recent report on privacy implications of wearable technology, surveillance studies researchers, Debra Mackinnon and Steven Richardson, suggest it is important to distinguish between “what the data is produced for versus what it can be used for.”
They point out that sensor data from devices can be combined to create unique information. For example, combining heart rate data with accelerometer data may provide information that is not available from each sensor on its own.
Criminology professor Valerie Steeves says “the devices we use — our access cards, cellphones, and internet connections — continually leak information about us into the ether, and that information is routinely collected unobtrusively by a number of third parties, including the state.”
Surveillance is big business
Although older users are more careful in their clicking behaviour than their younger counterparts, they are less likely to engage in self-protective behaviours such as installing security updates for their computer software. This raises all sorts of practical and ethical questions including: When you gift an older adult with technology are you placing your loved one in harm’s way?
For example, a smart watch that offers features such as GPS that tracks your loved one, medication reminders, a pedometer to count steps or an accelerometer to detect falls may be transmitting or storing that data. The information gathered by a smart watch may be of as much interest to insurance companies as it is to wearers or their families.
Even if your gift is something simple, like a tablet computer or a smartphone, the same risks that face young people on the web exist for older adults. The social networking sites that lure both young and old are designed to observe and report on every click and “like,” which are then sold to advertisers for targeted marketing.
Surveillance is big business, says David Lyon, director of the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen’s University. He says companies “mine the customer database of internet corporations such as Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook (often referred to as the “Big Five”) for, among other things, targeted marketing. The “strategies that began in consumer surveillance and congealed in CRM (customer relationship management) are today central to the big data approaches of security and intelligence agencies.” And the information is provided by us, the consumers, through the sharing of photographs, personal information and opinions.
Give the gift of time with your tech presents
Fundamentally, according to Ian Kerr and Jessica Earle, the collection of data “renders individuals unable to observe, understand, participate in or respond to information gathered or assumptions made about them.” This is because as Microsoft researcher danah boyd writes, “technical systems are typically designed by powerful actors to produce outcomes that address their interests, often at the expense of those who are less powerful.”
In most cases, data will be used to guide a person to products and services, creating an ever more personalized advertising presence in the social media page – for example advertisements that reinforce attitudes already demonstrated through “likes” and following web links.
But personal data is also vulnerable to misuse ranging from financial scams to credit card companies selling information on purchasing data to advertisers.
If you are gifting someone who is not technologically savvy, consider giving the gift of time along with that gift of a tablet or smartphone.
Sit down with the older adult on your list and help create strong privacy settings and passwords. Encourage powering off devices when they aren’t in use and regular updates of operating systems when they are. Most of all, explain how to set and monitor privacy controls so that the recipient of your gift can continue to protect their own privacy.
And, most importantly, consider using communication methods other than social media to maintain your connections with older adults who aren’t willing to give up their privacy to technology.
Lisa F. Carver does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.