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1984: Is it coming to a senior citizen near you?

Thomas Secrest's picture
Senior surveillance: Image by Thomas Secrest

Let me start by saying that I have mixed feelings about this topic; in part because I am approaching the age when I will have to consider if this is something suitable for me and because I had to care for someone with Alzheimer’s disease and I know the burden of responsibility that comes with such care. On the other hand, I am deeply concerned about human dignity and human rights and I oppose the formation of a society that asks for both in exchange for safety and protection.

This article is based on research being done at the University of Missouri, although, similar research is likely being carried out in many labs across America and probably around the world. A less opinion-oriented look at this topic can be found in July 10 issue of USA Today.

When you ask most people what comes to mind when they hear the word surveillance, they will say things like someone listening to their phone calls or reading their emails. Others might mention the ever present traffic cameras, although, they usually don’t mention the very small ones that they don’t see, which are in virtually every store you enter and along every street you walk.

However, one thing they almost always fail to mention is bio-monitoring. In fact, I think most people would say they had never heard of it. However, if you walk into a hospital you will see it everywhere. It’s all the stuff that is generally called hospital equipment.

So what can it monitor?

For starters sensors in your mattress can monitor your pulse and respiratory rate; other sensors can monitor the amount of oxygen in your blood, the amount of hemoglobin in your blood, the amount of alcohol in your blood, the blood flow to various parts of your body, your temperature, what your ate for your last meal, if you are awake sitting quietly or sound asleep, and your blood pressure, and those are just for starters.

The researchers at the University of Missouri are looking into ways of outfitting the home of senior citizens with a variety of sensors, including motion detectors, which would allow them, or a computer algorithm, to monitor those living in the sensor equipped space. Computers would monitor and store bio-data and constantly evaluate changes in medical parameters to detect signs of current or probable future medical events.

On the surface this doesn’t sound too ominous.

Many people have elder relatives that need care and attention, and the idea of having a computer monitor them 24/7 might be very reassuring. The computer could easily determine if a senior is spending more time than usual in bed (a sign of depression) and it could alert you with a text message that you should call them. The computer could also easily detect a fall or a call for help, in which case it could respond with a message to 911.

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The friendly computer could tell if someone left the stove on after they fixed breakfast. It could even tell if they were walking about the house less or more on any given day, which might be a statistical sign of some imminent medical emergency. The sensors could spot trends in blood pressure, pulse or respirations and communicate this information to the family doctor, who might make a change in a prescription or two.

All of this sound like it could be good for our aging relatives who still live unassisted.

Now the flip side

Not the least of my concerns center around abandonment of seniors once we feel that their basic health is not monitor by never tiring computers. I worry that people will lose what little incentive keeps them in contact with those who are guilty of growing old in a world for the young. But that is a concern for another article.

For this article my concern is with abuse of what looks like a good idea.

If only we lived in a world where no good ideas were ever abused; regrettably, we don’t. We live in a world where exploitation of good ideas is more common place than not. With this in mind, we now need to view the suggested elder-monitoring with fresh skepticism. Remember, all the bio-data that is collected has to be stored, but probably not locally. It means the data is transferred to the cloud for analysis and storage. When it is transferred it becomes no different than a phone call, an email or a text message – anyone, with the intent and the right equipment will be able to access the stream of 0s and 1s.

Who would want such information about our aging population, which by the way, in time, will be you. A few possibilities come to mind. Let’s start with medical insurance companies; if they have data that shows a potential expensive future illness, do you really think they will ignore that information? Somehow, I think not. What about pharmaceutical companies? Would they begin to target seniors with personalized direct advertising for drugs and tests related to a particular illness? I think yes. What about mortgage companies, retirement homes, funeral homes, life insurance companies, real estate agents and Medicare or Medicaid?

What really worries me is that I’m pretty honest and therefore I lack the creativity of others who could easily expand my short list by several hundred.

My next worry would be that someone sees the profit potential in requiring that all home meet certain minimum sensor specifications to protect those elderly people who might live there in the future. Look around your house now. If it is new there are a variety of items that are there because they are required by law. Many of them were and are good ideas. It is a very small step from a good idea that you can buy if you want, to a good idea that you are required to buy. If you have a company with a good idea that is optional, you can make a nice profit and earn a nice living. However, if you have a company with a good idea that is mandated to be part of every new home, you will become a billionaire. There is a big, big difference.

Before you whole heartedly endorse the idea of wiring up your parents or grandparents, ask yourself two simple questions. (1) Would you want to live that way? Do you want your blood pressure broadcast into the digital universe each morning, do you want your breath monitored to see if you’re eating your vegetable? Do you want sensors monitoring how many trips you make to the refrigerator each day or how much time you spend on the toilet? Are these things you really want digitalized? and (2) Do you really trust the thousands of people who will have access to this information to use it ONLY in your best interest?

I would like to hear your thoughts on this and perhaps I can incorporate them into a future article that takes a second look at this issue. I look forward to hearing from you. You can reach me by email at [email protected]