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A Numbers Game

Plotting Your Every Move

What your technology is saying about you.


Q: Explain how data research technology can help us as we age.

A: In health care, the numerati can do wonderful things. I went to Intel in Portland, and they’ve wired homes of elderly people with technology that monitors the health of retirees so that they don’t have to go to assisted living facilities. The numerati at Intel are looking at the length of the residents’ strides, how they distribute their weight when they stand, and how often they visit the kitchen. They’re even looking for the length of time it takes a resident to recognize a voice on the telephone. If your son calls you and it takes you an extra half a second to recognize his voice, it might mean the onset of some cognitive disease. It’s incredible detail, but they’re looking for changes in people’s living patterns that might indicate deteriorating health.

Q: Could some data could be used to exploit people?

A: One area that we have to worry about is health insurance. For example, if insurance companies get data that can be used to establish preexisting conditions, they might deny us coverage. As this health surveillance equipment takes root, more of us are going to leave tracks, and our living patterns are going to be recorded and studied.

Q: Does the volume of information available online mean scammers will become more sophisticated?

A: There’s an ongoing war between scammers and defenders. Some of these scammers are a criminal element of the numerati. They look at our data, figure out what we like, where we go, and they try to cheat us. Other numerati are building tools to protect us. This will be a major business for companies like Microsoft, IBM and Google.

Q: Can we control who gets hold of our data?

A: That’s very hard to do. The industry is very young, about a decade old, and there aren’t that many protections available. People who are considering entrusting details about their personal lives to online services should ask friends if they’ve had good experiences. They should also be careful to read the privacy policies of online companies. They should limit the number of companies they entrust with their data—and of course, provide Social Security and banking numbers only to services they know and trust entirely. One trick I have, when I give data to a company, I use the first letter of the company’s name as my middle initial. TheEconomist, for example, knows me as Stephen E. Baker. That way, I can see whom they’re selling their subscription data to.

Q: It can be unsettling to know that our behavior can be predicted with the right information.

A: Ultimately, we are always going to be unique; we’re always going to be beyond the range of machines in our complexity, so they’re never going to truly understand us. They might be able to figure out what kind of food we like to eat or if we like to wear striped shirts, but we will always be changing.

Krista Walton is an assistant editor atPreservationmagazine in Washington.

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