Thursday, January 29, 2015

Cool or creepy, iPhone tracks my every step

I was psyched to see that my new iPhone 6 came with the Health app.  But I was shocked when I opened it and saw that it was already tracking my steps,  my daily walking distance and the flights of stairs I had climbed.

What?  I didn't ask my phone to do that.  Not only did I not opt in,  I couldn't find a way to opt out.

My first reaction was  "How dare Apple tag me like a game warden tracking a bear?"  I wondered where all this data was going.  The Apple folks say it's stored only on my phone,  but after the disclosure that shared personal details after promising not to,  I had to wonder.  I learned that short of ditching my new phone I can't block the monitoring,  though I can tell my phone not to put the information on my dashboard.

I haven't done that.  In fact,  my next thought was "How do I get credit for all the steps I take when my phone is sitting in my purse?  Should I buy more pants with pockets?"

I'm sure I'm not the only one who views the explosion of physical data tracking with a mix of trepidation and fascination.  I grew up reading  "1984"  when it was actually set in the future.  I recently watched the excellent "Black Mirror" Netflix series,  which is enough to give anyone the shivers about where our technology is taking us.  Part of me wants to tell my phone to mind its own business.

But I'm as fascinated by numbers and competition as the next American.   I remember reading David Sedaris' New Yorker essay on  "Living the Fitbit life"  and suspecting that if I ever succumbed,  I'd be like him: "To people like Dawn and me,  people who are obsessive to begin with, the Fitbit is a digital trainer,  perpetually egging us on.  During the first few weeks that I had it,  I’d return to my hotel at the end of the day,  and when I discovered that I’d taken a total of,  say,  twelve thousand steps,  I’d go out for another three thousand."

I resisted when my brother bought a Garmin Vivofit and lost more than 30 pounds.  I poked fun at colleague Andrew Dunn when he got a device for Christmas and put out a query for Fitbit friends to share data with.

But now that this stuff is on my phone,  I've found myself testing whether the technology can tell whether I'm striding up the Observer's escalators or riding passively  (it can).  When I walked to the WFAE studio to talk about health care costs on Wednesday,  I was secretly pleased that my phone was logging those blocks.

So now I'm at 5,770 steps for the day,  with 11 flights of stairs.

It's a personal best in my short career as an iPhone 6 owner.  But it's well below my brother's rate,  not to mention David Sedaris'.

Dang it.


Tim Cooper said...

The key to Apple default inclusion on this that shouldn't freak people out is that they aren't also using GPS to track WHERE you took the steps. The fact that you took steps today is pretty much a given to everyone who knows you. By including the feature, they're making it easier to track your fitness without needing another device.

Now, if they placed that info on a map (which of course they could technically do, but likely don't do both because of the creepy factor and the massive battery hit) and don't have users opt-in for that, that would be wrong.

My take is that Apple did well with this feature, even if as many studies are starting to show, the data could be upwards of 20% off.

Larry said...

Same with Google.

See where your have been for the last few years.

Ann Doss Helms said...

Thanks, Tim -- that's a good insight. Larry, I'm intrigued but that link doesn't take me anywhere.

Jeff Wise said...

Putting steps on a map isn't very effective with GPS because it doesn't reach indoors all that well. Apple's iBeacon product...different story, but that uses Bluetooth LE which you can turn off to thwart (remember that when you walk into a mall and your phone suddenly starts pinging you with ads and offers).

Interestingly the iPhone measures steps differently from my Fitbit which counts steps differently from the pedometer I got via work as part of their fitness program.

Much of that is because only the Fitbit asked about my stride length at start up. Also, the iPhone isn't so great at measuring flights of stairs.

Considering all the other data smartphones are collecting, I'm not overly worried about step data being publicized, meaning if someone presented that data in a court of law for whatever reason, I wouldn't cringe.