eHealth / mHealth And Privacy Will Never Coexist

Erasing Privacy?

There is some debate right now in the tech world about whether or not there is or will be two Internets: one that is the domain of computers and one that is the domain of mobile devices. If you’re like me, there is only one Internet that involves both.

Throughout the day I access information using a variety of devices from different places that combine wired and wireless Internet. Much of my Facebook updates are done on a Blackberry, while my Tweets might come equally from my laptop, iPod or that same Blackberry. I don’t think about what I am using when I engage the Internet world and that’s pretty common.

But this past week a joint statement by Google and U.S. mobile service provider Verizon pointed to the idea that these two ways of accessing the Internet are distinct and they are seeking to create dialogue about rules on how we engage each ‘Internet’. This statement, summarized and discussed by Elliot van Buskirk on , basically points to a preference by both companies for some kind of restricted (controlled) form of wireless Internet. This is about net neutrality, the concept that all traffic on the Internet is treated equally, regardless of who you are and what content you are producing or consuming.

Google has responded to the criticism on their own blog and go to point out that their apparent repudiation of the idea of net neutrality on the wireless web is a myth.

Net neutrality is a big issue and one that is worth paying attention to even if you are not a ‘techie’. It is not my intention to discuss it here, but rather discuss another piece of media that got me to this issue and to a place of thinking that privacy and eHealth are an impossible pair.

How did I get there? The inspiration came from Mitch Joel’s Twist Image podcast, Six Pixels of Separation. If you’ve never listened to it before, it is well worth an hour to drop in** and hear someone who is quite articulate about social media issues explore in a casual, but engaging way the social mediasphere. The last episode (#215), was particularly good. Actually, scary might be a better term. Why? In one hour, Joel and his guests discussed, over sushi, a range of issues that, for me, cemented the fact that eHealth and privacy will never coexist. Ever.

They did this without actually using the term eHealth or mHealth (mobile health), but for those of you in this area of work you’ll immediately know why I came to this conclusion. Interestingly, none of the issues that they covered were new to me (aside from the Google-Verizon one). But I had never heard them all discussed in the same narrative in a manner that got me to imagine the future in the way I did when I listened to it. What it did was showcase the already loose controls we have on our “regular” online data, stored in website host servers and ISP provider databases and how these already poor provisions are nothing compared to wireless data, where our data providers and devices give up every little piece of information about us every time we engage in this “other” Internet — the one that has Verizon and Google so interested in controlling/influencing.

The example used to point this out was a health one — albeit a hypothetical one — and it shows just how vulnerable we can be, particularly if you imagine someone posting all of your search data online. This is a real threat. These things happen. Just look at what is going on with the current Wikileaks / Afghan war documents.

I have no suggestion for how to address this and, frankly, I don’t really see any solution that will work to address privacy in eHealth/mHealth; the problem is too embedded. Having some faceless corporation holding our confidential information or some government bureaucracy doing the same are two lousy options. This is the price we pay for convenience, for the power that information has in helping us keep well and for the tools that allow us to connect to others. It’s a big price and no doubt there will be some who listen to this podcast and view the topic through an eHealth light and start questioning whether its worth it. But unless we go back to paper with all we do, I don’t see an option for addressing it in any practical manner. We’ve paid the price of admission to the fair that is eHealth/mHealth and now we need to pay it off with the cost of running the show.

** I like Joel’s style and frankness about media issues, but I will say that his podcast — particularly those that are cross-labeled as ‘media hacks’ episodes — features occasional off-colour jokes among his guests in dialogue (often including fellow social media marketing leaders like Julien Smith, Chris Brogan, and Hugh McGuire) that smack of sexual inappropriateness that I think is unnecessary, beneath him and frankly add no value to the show or his brand. These are relatively mild, but still not worth it. To them I say: Swear all you like guys, but cut out the sexual joking around. It cheapens the whole experience and makes you smart guys look like sophomoric jocks when you do it.

1 thought on “eHealth / mHealth And Privacy Will Never Coexist”

  1. Cameron:

    Just listened to Media Hacks… yeah, scary. Mitch Joel creates a couple of hypotheticals to illustrate the depth of information now being stored on one server or another (Google, Facebook, BankofAmerica, etc.) about our lives. Beads of sweat on the forehead over that one.

    On the other hand, fascinating conversation about the rapid untethering of the Internet. What does this mean for academicians (like Cameron Norman) who are trying to stay cutting edge, or academic sites like, who are watching their traditional Web site evolve right out from under them?

    Whew! A lot to process…

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