Science and technology have provided many new wonders in the past few years.
DNA analysis is an important tool in convicting and exonerating criminals, and just opening up new possibilities in medicine, with some cancer centers analyzing your DNA to help determine the most effective treatment program. Check out Jim Murray’s blog for lots of postings on the intersection of murder and medicine.
But an even more enabling technology has been the Internet and Cloud Computing. You are all aware of their impact on business. The Cloud has disrupted the music and movie industry, news media, and many consumer-oriented businesses. Legacy companies who have learned to embrace a new paradigm for customer relationships and doing business by seamlessly integrating their brick and mortar and on-line presence are thriving. Those who have not are in deep trouble even if they don’t know it yet. New companies have almost unlimited opportunities for growth at costs that are a fraction of the cost of starting a new business just ten years ago.
As I recently posted, the Cloud is also driving a much-needed revolution in education, with the opportunity for vastly superior education opportunities at significantly reduced cost.
Sometime in the next five years, after we get over the conversion hump, electronic medical records (EMR) will revolutionize the actual practice of medicine, significantly reducing errors while reducing clerical requirements. EMR is impossible without the Cloud providing a consistent set of information everyone connected with your health care including doctors, hospitals, pharmacies and other caregivers.
Last year I wrote about “Your Smart House in the Cloud.” Home security is also changing, with traditional home security services and traditional ISPs (like Comcast or Verizon) are offering the ability to monitor and control your house from a smart phone. Want to see what your children are doing while you’re on a busy trip? No problem. Forget to set the thermostat? No problem.
Google and others already have cars that can successfully navigate autonomously. No more getting turn-by-turn directions from Google maps, let the car do that and get you there while you read, watch a movie, or get some shuteye. Although, based on a recent personal experience with a closed bridge, it could be amusing. Our smart phone was baffled by the situation and kept trying to get us back to where we could try to cross the same closed bridge. In October 2012, California joined Nevada and Florida in approving those cars for the public highway. (Interestingly, no state actually has a law that prohibits a driver-less car, and as of this writing, none of the autonomous cars can backup, yet.)
By every one of these benefits is potentially a two-edged sword. One of the most serious dangers is what I call “predictive punishment.”
Some auto insurance companies want to constantly monitor your car to determine how your are driving in real time, and set your rate accordingly. I’m not sure what kind of algorithm they are using, but at least it includes speed and braking information. Someone driving at 75 mph on I80 in Nevada is likely to be a safe driver, yet someone driving 75 mph on the Schuylkill Expressway in Philadelphia is definitely not a safe driver. This is a maybe benign form of predictive punishment: based on a couple of data points on your driving, I will punish you with a higher rate.
Jim Murray often writes about the relationship between genes and crimes or diseases. While there may be statistically significant relationships between a particular gene or set of genes and socially unacceptable behavior (the “killer gene,” for example), these relationships are not guaranteed. The vast majority of people with these genes do not actually commit the crime or exhibit aggressive behavior, and many people who do murder do not have the gene.
We are steadily accumulating DNA. In some jurisdictions, police officers collect DNA from anyone they bring into the police station, even if they are not a suspect, never tried, and never convicted. That DNA is never destroyed.
Expect your health insurance company to ask for and eventually demand your DNA. Or, more likely, the U.S. government will demand your DNA for identification as well as health care. Already the government controls what medical treatment you can get based on symptoms, as I found out when my doctor prescribed a specific test and Medicare told me I could not get the test because I did not have the appropriate symptoms. This happened on two separate occasions with two separate tests. Under U.S. Health and Human Services Rules, the government can violate HIPAA security requirements to use your health data for “meaningful use.” It is not a leap to some serious predictive punishments by forcing or denying treatment based on your DNA.
DNA information could also be used to set your life insurance rate, or prevent you from getting a job. If a company had your DNA, they could deny you a job because you had a slightly high probability of being aggressive or getting an expensive disease. If they had two qualified candidates, it would be very hard to prove that they used DNA in the final selection. On the other hand, if they had a candidates DNA, hired him, and he later “went postal” the company could be liable for law suits because they knowingly created a higher risk working environment.
The issue is that there are far too many false positives: indications that something might happen. This type of statistical analysis, whether based on how fast you drive or your DNA, may be exceedingly likely over a large population but is almost useless as a prediction for the individual.
We may want to consider an addition to the protections against government provided by the U.S. Constitution: the protection against predictive punishment based on statistical analysis and not behavior, especially as related to our personal DNA.
The last word:
Once something gets into the Cloud or on the Internet, it is there forever. That data is vulnerable for attack by cybercriminals and governments. Incidentally, that includes the camera feeds from your new home security system.
As companies and governments collect more and more personal data, the risk that data will be used against us increases. The recent revelations of what the U.S. National Security Agency collects from the Internet is likely just the tip of the iceberg of what they really collect. The U.S. intelligence agencies have demonstrated that they are very bad at “connecting the dots” before an event. That does not stop them from violating U.S. citizens’ rights as they come into the U.S. because of a random “connection.” Check out a recent NPR On the Media article.
Keep your sense of humor.