Companies scour social media for clues to your physical and mental health

“Your digital footprint — how often you post on social media, how quickly you scroll through your contacts, how frequently you check your phone late at night — could hold clues to your physical and mental health,” Natasha Singer reports for The New York Times. “That at least is the theory behind an emerging field, digital phenotyping, that is trying to assess people’s well-being based on their interactions with digital devices.”

“Researchers and technology companies are tracking users’ social media posts, calls, scrolls and clicks in search of behavior changes that could correlate with disease symptoms,” Singer reports. “People typically touch their phones 2,617 per day, according to one study — leaving a particularly enticing trail of data to mine.”

“One of the most ambitious efforts is being conducted by Facebook. The company recently announced that it was using artificial intelligence to scan posts and live video streams on its social network for signs of possible suicidal thoughts,” Singer reports. “In some cases, Facebook sends users a supportive notice with suggestions like “Call a helpline.” In urgent cases, Facebook has worked with local authorities to dispatch help to the user’s location… Some health researchers applauded Facebook’s effort, which wades into the complex and fraught realm of mental health, as well intentioned. But they also raised concerns. For one thing, Facebook has not published a study of the system’s accuracy and potential risks, such as inadvertently increasing user distress.”

“Facebook is scanning user posts in the United States and some other countries for signs of possible suicidal thoughts without giving users a choice of opting out of the scans,” Singer reports. “‘Once you are characterized as suicidal, is that forever associated with your name?’ said Frank Pasquale, a law professor at the University of Maryland who studies emerging health technologies. ‘Who has access to that information?'”

Read more in the full article here.

MacDailyNews Take: This reminds us of what we wrote about Google’s “free” Google Photos service back in May 2015:

How Google will eventually monetize their “free” image data gathering operation:

• She looked good in 2005. Height estimate: 5′ 4″. Weight estimate: 110 lbs. In 2015, she’s up to an estimated 150 lbs. Serve up those Weight Watchers ads!

• The wedding photos were nice. June 7th, 2003. But, the photos of them together ended in 2014. He’s not consistently been with anyone significant since then. Serve up the dating ads!

• The post-chemo photos started in January 2008. They ended that same year. Now, they’re back and it’s looking worse than ever. Serve up the funeral parlor ads! (And start emailing the kids about how easy it is to transfer their mom’s Google Photos library to their devices – for FREE, of course.)

Ah, the price of “free.”

Apple: Privacy is a fundamental right – September 27, 2017
Edward Snowden: Apple is a privacy pioneer – June 5, 2015
Tim Cook gets privacy and encryption: We shouldn’t surrender them to Google – June 4, 2015
Tim Cook attacks Google, U.S. federal government over right to privacy abuses – June 3, 2015
The price you’ll pay for Google’s ‘free’ photo storage – June 3, 2015
Apple CEO Tim Cook champions privacy, blasts ‘so-called free services’ – June 3, 2015
How Google aims to delve deeper into users’ lives – May 29, 2015
Apple CEO Cook: Unlike some other companies, Apple won’t invade your right to privacy – March 2, 2015
Survey: People trust U.S. NSA more than Google – October 29, 2014
Edward Snowden’s privacy tips: ‘Get rid of Dropbox,” avoid Facebook and Google – October 13, 2014
Apple CEO Tim Cook ups privacy to new level, takes direct swipe at Google – September 18, 2014
Apple will no longer unlock most iPhones, iPads for government, police – even with search warrants – September 18, 2014
U.S. NSA watching, tracking phone users with Google Maps – January 28, 2014
U.S. NSA secretly infiltrated Yahoo, Google data centers worldwide, Snowden documents say – October 30, 2013
Google has already inserted some U.S. NSA code into Android – July 10, 2013
Court rules NSA doesn’t have to reveal its semi-secret relationship with Google – May 22, 2013


  1. There’s the future – 1984 meets Minority Report. And with a few more attacks like Florida, the government will have full access to your digital phenotype. What they’ll be allowed to do with that information remains to be seen.

    Not being tin-hat here, its simply a natural and logical progression of the use of AI and other emerging technologies.

    The big challenge will be in deciding who is normal enough to NOT put in jail. The difference between a flawed but functional person and a failing one can be very hazy.

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