Period-tracking apps are not for women

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“The design of these tools often doesn’t acknowledge the full range of women’s needs. There are strong assumptions built into their design that can marginalize a lot of women’s sexual health experiences,” Karen Levy, an assistant professor of information science at Cornell University, tells me in an email, after explaining that her period tracker couldn’t understand her pregnancy, “a several-hundred-day menstrual cycle.”

Levy coined the term “intimate surveillance” in an expansive paper on the topic in the Iowa Law Review in 2015. At the time, when she described intimate data collection as having passed from the state’s public health authorities to every citizen with a smartphone, she was mostly alone in her level of alarm. This was just after Apple Health launched (sans menstrual tracking), hailed as the future of medical care. But even before that, Levy argued, the “data-fication” of romantic and sexual behaviors was everywhere. There were smart pelvic floor exercisers that could pair with smartphones via Bluetooth. There were sex-tracking apps that quantified performance by counting thrusts and duration and “noise.”

“The act of measurement is not neutral,” Levy wrote. “Every technology of measurement and classification legitimates certain forms of knowledge and experience, while rendering others invisible.” Sex tracking apps and their ilk “simplify highly personal and subjective experiences to commensurable data points.”

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Alexa, Should We Trust You?

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The ramifications of this shift are likely to be wide and profound. Human history is a by-product of human inventions. New tools—wheels, plows, PCs—usher in new economic and social orders. They create and destroy civilizations. Voice technologies such as telephones, recording devices, and the radio have had a particularly momentous impact on the course of political history—speech and rhetoric being, of course, the classical means of persuasion. Radio broadcasts of Adolf Hitler’s rallies helped create a dictator; Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats edged America toward the war that toppled that dictator.

Perhaps you think that talking to Alexa is just a new way to do the things you already do on a screen: shopping, catching up on the news, trying to figure out whether your dog is sick or just depressed. It’s not that simple. It’s not a matter of switching out the body parts used to accomplish those tasks—replacing fingers and eyes with mouths and ears. We’re talking about a change in status for the technology itself—an upgrade, as it were. When we converse with our personal assistants, we bring them closer to our own level.

Google Knows Where You’ve Been, but Does It Know Who You Are?

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In August, The Associated Press published an investigation into how Google handles the data it collects, following a curious discovery by a graduate researcher at U.C. Berkeley. For years, the company has allowed users to control their “location history,” which stores a detailed record of where they’ve been, based primarily on their activity in Google Maps. This, the researcher suggested — and The A.P. confirmed — did not work as advertised. “Some Google apps automatically store time-stamped location data without asking,” the reporters found. The revelation has since resulted in at least one lawsuit, as well as renewed public criticism from lawmakers.

I came to resent this data in a number of ways: that a cache of coordinates from Google could trigger grief or joy — that was such a nice morning, up in the park, with all those dogs — or that it, rather than a friend or a co-worker or a missed stop on the train, would be what triggers a familiar guilty reminder that the city I live in is so much bigger than the routine I’ve created within it.

There were also moments, deep in this incidental personal data diary, when I almost wished for more — when I thought about how nice it would be to be able to zoom in even further, to get back into a room and look around. These moments were brief. An intensely personal diary is the sort of thing you could only be happy to discover in your own attic, in your own handwriting, not on the servers of a multibillion-dollar advertising corporation.

Should You Track Your Teen’s Location?

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Location tracking can, without question, damage the connection between parent and teenager. Research shows that adolescents who believe their parents have invaded their privacy go on to have higher levels of conflict at home. And teenagers who resent being trailed digitally sometimes disable location features, take pains to “spoof” their GPS, or leave their phones at friends’ houses to throw parents off their scent.

As a psychologist, I also worry that location tracking can confuse the question of who is mainly responsible for the safety of the roaming adolescent — the parent or the teenager? If parents decide against using location tracking, I encourage them to talk with their teenager about why.

What It’s Like to Wallow in Your Own Facebook Data

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My own download held the usual digital flotsam—not all the information I had ever volunteered to the platform, but a lot of it: date of birth, phone number, schools. There were IP addresses from every time I’d signed on since 2009 (though I’ve had an account since 2005). There was a list of advertising topics for which I could be targeted––some accurate, some more like divination than data science—alongside content I’d created: chat transcripts, event listings, photographs, videos.

I was startled to find dozens of videos I had deleted before posting or sharing with friends, an embarrassment of outtakes. There I was, lower-resolution and smoother-skinned, staring at the computer camera and adjusting my bangs, looking for a good angle from my dorm room, my parents’ kitchen, a temp job. It was like watching B-roll for a documentary about my insecurities. (Facebook has since announced that the inclusion of deleted videos was the result of a bug, and said it was planning to discard the data from its servers.) The videos were jarring to discover—and suggested questionable data-retention practices at Facebook—but they were not entirely unwelcome. In an era of personal brands and social-media curation, I was amused, and a little wistful, to have a realistic glimpse of what I had been like as an awkward college student.

Taking Photos Without Consent is Like Unwanted Touching: SF Street Fair

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Folsom Street Fair, the annual BSDM fair in San Francisco, upset photographers in 2016 with its “Ask First” campaign that asked photographers to receive permission before taking photos of people on the public streets of the fair. This year, the same event organizers have released a warning that compares taking photos without consent to sexual assault.