Wearables for Intimate Surveillance

Whether wearable computers are fashionable bling-wise, they are certainly hitting a sweet spot in human relations: the anxiety of caregivers.

Ellen Lee has a series of reports in IEEE Spectrum about a variety of “wearable fashions” that are designed to monitor the well being of loved ones.

Sproutling Baby Monitor reports the heart rate of your baby, andprovides alerts. The device collects data to build a profile of the infant’s individual behavior (!), with the goal to detect problems. Naturally, there is an Inappropriate Touch Screen interface via a mobile app.

“The overarching objective is to reduce parental anxiety.”


If we are deeply anxious as parents, we are nearly as doting for our pets. Lee reports on Whistle dog tracker that monitors the activity of your dog. Again, data is collected to detect patterns and anomalies. Pet owners receive data via—wait for it—and Inappropriate Touch Screen mobile app.

“The Whistle tracks how much a dog plays, runs, and rests each day using a 3-axis accelerometer.”

The article reports that the company is contemplating a similar device for cats, but has not yet figured out how to do it. Good luck with that! 🙂

And third up in the “reducing caregiver’s anxiety”, Lee looks at examples of the many wristband and smart watch products designed monitor elderly people and report to relatives or caregivers. The wristband has sensors that detect the activity of the dog baby parental unit. The company compiles a profile of the individual, to detect patterns and anomalies. Etc.

Importantly, the eldercare monitors gnerally make an effort to aggregate the data so the wider system should only see coarse grained patterns.  This is intended to reduce the intrusion into the privacy of the targets, though they are on networks that are certainly hackable.

Exactly the same technology.

Exactly the same social psychology.

I’m confident that the same technology will be applied to monitor the activities (and chastity) of teenagers, because parents worry about them, too. I predict that won’t go well.

These applications are classic surveillance systems, and the analytics are pretty much the same as military intelligence and police forces use: compile a dossier of normal behaviors, and watch for anomalies. This is what everyone has been complaining about the government doing.

Of course, the target audience are loving caretakers, but the technology will also work for not-so-loving monitors. But set that aside, what are the implications of the intended uses.

Worrying about your aged parents, newborn infant, and pets is very human. It has never been possible to watch over loved ones continuously, and few have the luxury to spend all the time needed or hire others to spend the time. So it is very clear why these applications are so appealing. I get it.

On the other hand, humans have managed for millennia without being continuously watched, and without knowing exactly what is happening to our loved ones. That’s life. I have to worry about the effects of such monitoring technology on everyone involved, as well as the relationships involved.

I worry about the effects on the monitors. First, it’s more than a little “stalky” to be checking on the baby, any time, any place. Ditto, fido. Ditto, mums. Not content to check messages and social media constantly, we also can check the baby, the dog, and pops. This is not good for you, and really won’t improve productivity or highway safety.

Second, I fear there is a false feeling of control and safety. A reality based anxiety (“Is she OK?”) is replaced by a feeling that I’m successfully watching over them. It’s a slick looking app, so it must be true! Look at all those numbers and charts!  Everything is fine.

But there is so much we aren’t seeing. These devices can detect big things (spikes in activity, serious lack of activity, wandering away). But it certainly can’t see depression or happiness, bad or good dreams and memories, or even dangers such as fire or not taking medicine properly.  Frankly, I’m not sure they can tell if the loved one is “happy” or “sad”–which is kind of a huge deal.

There is also a danger that electronic monitoring may lull the monitor into spending less time in personal contact. Not only would this mean less overall information gathering, it also damages one of the most critical factors in wellness, interaction with loved ones.

And, of course, there is the question of trust and power. Neither pets nor babies have any right to refuse, and frankly, they don’t really understand what you are doing. We can be dictators and act like dictators.

But I’m sure there will be serious, serious issues from aged parents who do not want to be spied on. And they have a point. If the tables are turned, would you wear a writstband and let them monitor your activities? If the answer is no, then you should think carefully about what you are doing.

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