Grandma's Big Data, Privacy and Your Future Choices

Big data is, well, big -- it is in the news, every business is trying to understand how to use it, some firms just discovered they have it, and recently it has gained agenda status as an issue of public policy and personal privacy. Individually we think of big data as our cybersocial-selves and associate it with the young and digital. Purchase history, cell phone calls, texts and countless photographs, just to name a few examples of our digital footprints, are in the cloud. But your grandmother may have all those data and more. Older adults may now be unwarily generating big data in a way that even the most digitally active Gen Yer cannot approach. More than emails, photos and chat, many of grandma's generation are becoming lifestyle leaders of a new digital life that few younger people are or would want to be part of -- a lifestyle that we are all headed for and must consider.

In support of her independence, safety and ultimately health, grandma is being monitored, motivated and managed by nearly everything in her home, car and even favorite store. As more older adults live alone (40-plus percent of American women over 65 live alone) many of them or their loved ones are purchasing systems to monitor their wellbeing. That additional care, connectivity and convenience may require renegotiating what is an acceptable level of privacy and how much advice and decision-making any of us are willing to accept from the cloud.

Grandma's home will have more than the 'help I've fallen and I can't get up' systems. An increasing number of connected devices are available to monitor home activities and detect changes in habits that might predict a catastrophic event rather than simply call for help after an accident has already occurred. Grandma's smart home will include sensors under her bedroom rug to detect what time she woke, if that time is within her typical range of behavior and if her walking pattern shows a change that might predict a fall. The Internet-of-things is enabling her coffee maker and refrigerator to 'know' and report what fresh food she has on hand, if she has been eating well and what time she made her coffee. Even her toilet may be tattling. On the market today are a variety of 'smart' toilets monitoring her weight, blood pressure and even sampling her 'output' to ensure that she is within her physiological normal and taking her medications. All these devices and related systems will report to a caring call center contracted to ensure that she is safe, well and behaving in the most cost-effective manner for private and public insurers alike.

Off to the store grandma is likely to be the first to use handheld smart phone apps or even a store provided device to shop for what's on sale and within her prescribed diet. Looking for crackers? A wave of her phone or shopping cart wand will read the product's RFID tag reconcile the ingredients with her doctor's prescribed diet via the cloud returning a 'yea' or 'nay' to her favorite saltines.

Our cars are mobile Internet platforms. Since grandma is over 55 she and her cohort are the most likely to buy the most high-priced, high-style and high-tech vehicles rolling down the road. Her car will do more than remember her seat position, frequent destinations and favorite oldies station it will remember how she typically feels behind the wheel, if she is driving in her usual range of performance and provide information to her insurer to enable dynamic pricing based upon her driving habits.

All of these systems provide significant value connecting us to loved ones, emergency services, professional advice and feedback to ensure our overall wellbeing as we age. However, unlike the choice to live out loud and online socially or to use credit cards for convenience many of our grandmothers will be the first to live a truly quantified self in ways that few of us have ever considered. We rarely think of older adults as being lifestyle leaders. However, the needs of an aging society combined with the availability of technology, related services and the big data they generate requires a cross-generational discussion of privacy, the evolving definition of 'independence', as well as who we trust. Instead of asking grandma about the 'old days,' it may be time to ask what does the future look like?