4 Messed-Up New Ways Companies Are Spying On You
Unless you're reading this from a printout in a remote shack in the wilderness, you've grown used to the fact that cameras are constantly watching us whenever we leave our homes. But prying eyes are forever making inroads into the few parts of life we still consider private. And so ...
There Could Be Cameras In Your Delivery Room
Most people are aware that every move they make in public is subject to recording, whether by the government or a YouTuber making "10 LOLworthy Walking Strides You Won't Believe I Found!" You would at least expect a little privacy when splayed out on a hospital gurney in the midst of squeezing out a baby. But if you or a loved one was giving birth or enjoying a nice spinal tap in La Mesa, California's Sharp Grossmont Hospital between 2012 and 2013, people other than doctors might have been peering in.
According to a lawsuit, approximately 1,800 people were secretly filmed while engaged in various stages of baby production in the hospital's labor and delivery rooms. Was it the work of a rogue nurse consumed by a depraved fetish? A pre-crime unit attempting to survey an about-to-be born supervillain? No, the surveillance was ordered by administration to catch a sticky-fingered employee who'd been pilfering drugs off anesthesia carts.
The cameras were secretly installed on medical carts, and they did indeed serve their purpose of catching a doctor in the act of purloining sedatives and sticking pills. But the lawsuit alleged that the videos also captured "women while they were emotionally and physically exposed, and at their most vulnerable." Oh, and there was no password protection on the video files, allowing access to anyone with an inclination to take a gander at thousands of giblets.
Security guards were reportedly able to view the footage any time they pleased, which hopefully wasn't done to make the midnight shift more entertaining. We're not saying that you should insist on a dangerous home birth out of paranoia, but we wouldn't be shocked if at least one other hospital pulled this trick under the logic of "Hey, it worked for those guys."
CPAP Machines Are Spying On You For Insurance Companies
Sleep apnea sucks. It ruins your sleep, makes you about as attractive a bed partner as a freight train, and is linked to everything from heart attacks and glaucoma to weight gain. It's estimated that 22 million Americans have this problem, and while most of that is undiagnosed, those who know they're snoring themselves to an early grave often combat the problem with a CPAP machine. Considering that the previous solution was to cut a hole in your throat, CPAP machines are lifesavers. And they're constantly improving, with better face masks, new air flow settings, and even the ability to communicate with your doctor. They can see if the machine is working and what settings seem to suit you best. And insurance companies are snooping on all of this feedback.
Unbeknownst to many CPAP users, insurance companies like to have your machine report to them so they can stick their non-medically-trained noses into your treatment. Between the non-consensual data collection and the regular leaking of medical data, the practice is galling enough. But if insurance companies find that you haven't been using your CPAP enough for their liking, they might cut off your access to the expensive devices for non-compliance.
In one example, a patient was prescribed a new mask. When it hadn't arrived in the mail after a few days, he called his insurance company to complain, only to be told that they wouldn't pay for the mask because he hadn't been using his CPAP machine ... because he had been waiting for the mask. It's an incredibly unsexy catch-22.
The response from the insurance company to all this was essentially "Our bad. We should have disclosed that we were watching you sleep." And hey, we understand that they don't want to pay for machines that aren't being used (because they turn a profit by forcing their customers to rent CPAPs instead of buying one outright), but there has to be a better monitoring method, right? We look forward to hopefully discovering it, as these privacy concerns are going to impact everything from Fitbits and Apple Watches to heart monitors and glucose meters.
Period And Pregnancy Tracking Apps Can Provide Data To Your Employer
If a free app doesn't have an obvious source of revenue, then it's you and your data. That's (hopefully) not a surprise when we talk about Twitter or Instagram, but how about seemingly innocuous apps, like the Angry Birds games that people are apparently still playing? Or, as employees of Activision Blizzard discovered, the Ovia period and pregnancy tracking apps?
Ovia helps one track everything from your ovulation to your sex drive. And if the end goal is to produce a little bundle of joy as opposed to a lot of fun Friday nights out, it can also help track pregnancy complications, medication, and basically everything else relevant to the issue. They even offer achievements for hitting milestones, because literally every part of human existence, right up to continuing to propagate it, now has to be gamified.
Companies like Activision encourage their employees to use Ovia, even giving users money to put toward baby supplies, because a smooth pregnancy is less of a hassle for employers ... and because Ovia lets employers view aggregate user data.
Activision could view data on how many women were using the apps, how many had pregnancy complications, what medical issues they were researching, when new moms were expected to return to work, and even the average length of time it was taking their employees to get pregnant. This data was "de-identified," meaning that Steve from HR couldn't just look up whether Sherri from accounting had been in the mood lately, but that only makes it marginally less disturbing.
Ovia pitches their apps as a way to demystify pregnancy and keep helpful data on everything from diet to cervical fluid coloration in one supportive place, but then they turn around and tell companies that their apps help cut down on medical bills and get women back into the workplace faster. Or, in the words of their dystopian marketing brochure: "An average of 33 hours of productivity are lost for every round of treatment."
Employees of many companies are encouraged to share all sorts of health data, ostensibly for their own well-being. In theory, everyone should be on the same page: wanting a safe pregnancy with no surprise costs or complications. But companies already have a habit of discriminating against female employees during a vulnerable moment in their lives, and apps like Ovia provide a lot of data to people who don't have the clinical background to handle it ethically.
Oh, and these apps can be a security disaster. In 2016, Ovia rival Glow ran into a little problem, in that anyone who knew the email address of a user was able to access all of their data, potentially including the last time they had sex and whether they'd ever had an abortion. That's only one of many concerns that's absolutely not going to be addressed by what's on track to be a $50 billion industry, so maybe don't take your boss at his word when he says "We want to track your pregnancy because we care."
You Can't Escape DNA Tests, Even If You Want To
As you may have guessed by the 5,000 ads you see for them daily, DNA and family history services like 23andMe and Ancestry are all the rage. But the results of their tests aren't delivered to just the amateur genealogists and bored retirees paying 30 bucks to have a spit sample analyzed. They're archived in extensive databases accessible by law enforcement, private companies, spit fetishists, and anyone else who cares to do some digging.
Now, if you're not too interested in learning where your great-great-grandparents were when they first made out, you might think that you can protect your privacy by simply not taking one of those tests. But if even one or two of your distant relatives can't resist their curiosity, their genetic data can be traced to you by anyone with enough power or interest. It's called a "long-range familial DNA search," because it allows you to hunt through family trees for genetic connections. After all, one of the main reasons people take these tests is to find long-lost relatives. While that mostly means more family reunion invitations to ignore, there are all sorts of reasons you might not want to be casually tied to your third cousin.
This method became well-known when it was used to nab a subject in the Golden State Killer case some 30 years after it looked like the trail had gone cold. DNA from the crime scene was uploaded and tied to distant family members of the suspect, which allowed investigators to examine their family tree and identify someone who lived near the crimes when they happened. And while Cracked is infamous for our brave "Catching serial killers is good" stance, there's a whole mess of privacy issues to sort out here.
In 2018, Family Tree DNA quietly updated their terms of service to say that, hey by the way, the FBI was using them to upload genetic profiles from samples found at crime scenes. When BuzzFeed started asking questions about the practice, their response was essentially "Deal with the fact that our service comes with the risk of a visit from the Feds." Familial DNA searches aren't foolproof, and they do take time, but there are concerns that the government could abuse them, that insurance companies will get their hands on the data and deny you coverage because a DNA database says you were born with an increased risk of stroke, or that the data will end up in the hands of sleazy companies to run god knows what sort of scam with. And it's not a problem that's going to go away, unless the genealogy bubble finally bursts and everyone's aunts get really into quilting.
E. Reid Ross has a book called BIZARRE WORLD that's due to be released in September. He's practically on his knees begging that you pre-order it now from Amazon or Barnes & Noble and leave a scathing/glowing review. Jack R. Loun has got a writing blog that he's been working on here if you want to check it out, for some reason. R.G. Jordan is not big on social media, but he is big on working and eating food, so you can contact him at RGJordan4@gmail.com if you think his words are funny or insightful.
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