Big Brother Is Watching You

by Michael (Mike) Kraten, PhD, CPA, IRB Chair at Providence College

PRIM&R is pleased to share a post from Mike Kraten, a member of the PRIM&R Blog Squad for the 2014 Advancing Ethical Research (AER) Conference. The PRIM&R Blog Squad is composed of PRIM&R members who will blog here, on Ampersand, about the conference to give our readers an inside peek of what happened December 4-7 in Baltimore, MD.

All of the PRIM&R conference sessions educate their attendees. Many manage to enlighten them as well. A few, though, strive to provoke and even (gently) disturb attendees to think about research issues from new perspectives.

On Saturday, December 6, a panel discussion titled “Science on the Move: The Use of Mobile Technologies in Human Subjects Research” achieved all three of these goals at the same time. Nevertheless, it was the third goal, that of presenting themes that are both provoking and (again, gently) disturbing, that still has me thinking.

Why? Because Saul M. Shiffman, PhD, of the University of Pittsburgh presented examples of technologies that would have been easily embraced by “Big Brother” in George Orwell’s 1984. Most striking, for me, was a sensor-equipped shirt that measures physiological indicators of stress and transmits its data in real time for aggregation and analysis.

Dr. Shiffman noted that such practices, called “ecological momentary assessment” within the field, could also be considered “high-tech voyeurism.” Subsequently, during the question and answer period, an audience member returned to the issue by describing automobile insurance driving programs that require policy holders to place tracking devices in their cars to monitor their driving habits.

There are many other disturbing examples of mobile and social technologies that are gathering data about us on a continuous basis. Indeed, the automobile insurance example may represent one of the less disturbing examples of such data collection activities.

Why less disturbing? Because the automobile insurance customers are consenting to be tracked by the insurers, and are receiving compensation (i.e., discounts on their policy premium costs) in exchange for their participation. More disturbing, I believe, was a recent study involving an online social network and a number of academic researchers.

In that situation, the social network intentionally manipulated the news feeds of certain users in order to study whether they could modify their emotional states through “massive scale emotional contagion.” The social network also reached out to academic researchers for assistance in analyzing the data. But because the social network conducted the study for “internal purposes,” the researchers’ institutional review board did not review the study.

Surely, the panelists and the audience members at the Saturday session could have offered a number of additional examples of controversial research activities if the session had extended beyond its 75-minute time slot. Although it is never a pleasure to be provoked and disturbed by new information, it is indeed gratifying to know that PRIM&R conference activities can do far more than simply educate and enlighten.