Wearable Devices, Information Sharing on Social Media, Privacy + Legal Implications of Wearable Healthcare Technology, GPS Tracking and Data Mining Your Mobile Phone
In this Future Tech interview, we’re speaking with Christine Ekman one of the co-founders of Mobile Pulse, a mobile analytics firm based in Denver, Colorado. Her experience in the telecoms industry has spanned Ethernet, Frame Relay, Fibre LANs, DSL and Cable data services, as well as mobile broadband.
She has been advising start-ups and venture investors for over 12 years at Evolve Adapt Survive. Previous to Evolve, Christine worked in mergers and acquisitions for Bay Networks (Nortel) and previous to that she worked as a broadband network design engineer at US WEST. She is also the Chairperson of the University of Colorado Boulder’s ITP (Interdisciplinary Telecom Program) Advisory Board.
Shara Evans (SE): Today, it’s my pleasure to be speaking with Christine Ekman, one of the founders of Mobile Pulse, and the Chairperson of the Interdisciplinary Telecom Program Advisory Board at the University of Colorado Boulder. Christine has an extensive background in the tech sector. For many years, she had a consulting company that focused on helping technology start-ups. Before that, she held senior positions at Nortel and CenturyLink, which today is known as US West.
I’d also like to add that Christine and I became friends over LinkedIn — we were both members of the same group — and used it as a springboard to do business together.
Christine Ekman (CE): Thanks, Shara.
SE: Let’s talk today about mobile trends because clearly that’s an area that you’re very much immersed in. One of the things that I’ve been tracking is wearable devices that use some kind of radio communications to network with other things, including the Internet. Is this a segment that’s waiting to explode? What do you expect to see first, and where do you think it’s going to be accepted across the board?
CE: I think wearables is an interesting technology. It gets very much into the element of personalised information and mobile. Before the interview, I looked to see what some of trends were from the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, and it still seemed that a lot of the descriptions involved words like bulky, the screens are small, people are not sure who’s looking at the information — so there’s some privacy issues. I think those have been the primary issues for wearables for the past 18 to 24 months. They’re not very fashionable, to say the least.
Google Glasses are a bit strange looking and distracting. I think people worry that you’re distracted wearing them, not only just for safety reasons like driving but maybe just personal relationship reasons. I’m looking at you, but I’m reading the “Wall Street Journal,” for example.
CE: It seems like right now, the areas that wearables really have some sort of traction are in fitness, with the Fitbit and the like. I had one for a while and found it not to be as accurate as advertised. For example, if you went for a walk, it would note your steps, but if you walked on a treadmill and you didn’t have any movement of the GPS, it did not. So I didn’t find it that valuable with my personal fitness attempts.
I think there’s also a move going around for health care reasons. Things like the new Samsung Watch monitors your heart rate. There’s wearable clothing that monitors your health, let’s say, your blood pressure and other health elements. That’s a specific application for wearables, but it seems to have a point purpose. You have a heart problem; you have some sort of health issue that you need to wear something for. It’s not something that you’re wearing in order to stay connected to Twitter, for example.
There also seems to be some VC funding going for child and elder care wearable-based tracking — so that if you put it on a specific person that maybe doesn’t have the ability to tell you where they are, and they have some potential to be lost or in some sort of danger. And I’ve also seen it for pet tracking. But that’s not a general population. Again, that’s not a Twitter, Facebook, email sort of application.
So I think they’re still a ways off. I don’t think they’ve caught on as a smart phone has caught on in terms of being able to communicate with it. I think it’s more monitoring. Fitness, health care, and child tracking are all monitoring applications versus interactive communication. I think that’s just the state of it right now.
SE: Yes, whereas something like Google Glass — that would be more of an active communication but, as you say, the form factor isn’t really all that fashionable right now. I suppose there’s a way to go before people will adopt those kinds of wearable technologies. When it starts looking really nice, then maybe that’s one of the factors.
CE: Exactly. I still don’t know how I’m going to figure out how to reply to someone with my eyes, other than I can reply, maybe if you look down into the left or something. I don’t know the interactivity of wearables, and I think that might be what’s holding them back. The ability to interact with them is very limited because of the form factors.
SE: So there’s quite a bit to go on the user interface. As you were talking, I had these scary implications of chips being implanted directly into our brains and reading our thoughts. It’s something that we see in science fiction, but has it happened yet?
It also brings to mind that we’re already suffering from information overload. I don’t know about you, but so many people that I talk to get more than a hundred emails a day and a lot of them require responses. Are we suffering from too much information? What will wearables do to all of this? Are we going to get to a point where people just say, “No, I don’t want anymore contact?”
Information Sharing on Social Media
CE: I definitely think that there’s going to be some push back. I think in the US, the NSA controversy took on both domestic and international implications that people do not want their information shared and looked at in the formats that technology can enable.
I think it’s generational. I think in an older generation there’s a natural maturity and understanding that people are using this for advertising, monitoring or law enforcement. Right now in the younger generation there’s a lot of information sharing on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, whatever it is this week, but I don’t think people under 20, at least I don’t think when I was under 20, that I had the maturity to understand what advertisers do with that information, what law enforcement can do with that information, the implications and consequences that the information in my future life might be.
So I think it’s very generational. The willingness to share information is something that people do when they’re young and they just don’t have that knowledge of consequences. So older generations, or as these generations mature, I think they’re going to start pulling back and being very wary of sharing as much information as they might have when they were younger.
SE: I’ve seen and heard from both sides of that camp, where one of the technologists that I spoke with recently (John Lindsay) was saying that his children are becoming much more aware of the fact that information that they share publicly really is public and will be around for a long time, and they’re starting to push back.
Then I also know people who are, let’s say, 40-plus all the way to quite aged, who’ve put all kinds of personal information in the public domain even though they know that it could be harvested and used for other purposes. So I see that as something that’s going to continue to be an issue. I think we will see some generational lines being drawn, but I don’t know that it’s as clear-cut as looking at how old are you.
CE: It might not be. I agree. There are some people who are over 40 who share information that I think is shocking. It depends on your level of understanding and willingness to put yourself out there.
Privacy + Legal Implications of Wearable Healthcare Technology
SE: Yes. Going back to wearable technology, what do you see around privacy implications of something like a sensor that’s built into a shirt? Where does the line get drawn? Who has access to the information, and how do you make sure that information is, say, only given to your doctor and not to, let’s say, an insurance company?
CE: Or Google.
SE: Or Google, or your employer, or a potential date, or someone that you may not want to send that kind information to?
CE: Or everyone. I think it’s very undefined right now. I don’t think there’s a good understanding of the benefits to individual users. There needs to be some sort of research — I don’t know if it’s a medical study or business study — into what are the benefits to the actual individuals?
There are some individuals that would go along with it, but this tends to be a world where people want to know: “What’s in it for me?” And that’s where the wearables might fall short. It’s very easy, as you just pointed out, to see what’s in it for others. What’s in it for individuals might not be as easy to determine, and that will really affect the uptake.
You were talking about who else can see the information … let’s just go ahead with the understanding that it is just your doctor. Where are the lines going to be drawn for the responsibility of the party getting the information?
If your doctor’s getting the information and you have a heart attack, what is the response time? What is their culpability? Do they call 911 [000 in Australia]? Are they willing to take on that kind of responsibility? Erasing all the privacy issues —that was a big part of the older phone companies, the 911 system, that it always had to be there, that the uptime had to be what we used to call four nines. It had to be that 99.99% of the time that you had to have phone service.
So what is the responsibility of the parties getting this information? Let’s say it’s a child tracker. It wasn’t that long ago in Colorado that there was a disabled child, that had some sort of mental disability, with a tracker, and they went missing and the tracker did not work. The child was later found, but was not found alive. There were a lot of lawsuits about that.
There are all kinds of consequences and responsibility on both sides of that equation that just are completely undefined, and that needs to be determined going forward.
SE: Well, you’ve raised so many good points. My mind is racing. I’m thinking about potential new service industries for companies that essentially could put up the equivalent of a 911 service or here in Australia Triple Zero (000), which is our code to call emergency services, a company who has sole responsibility for monitoring. But even if you have a company like that in the mix, what’s to say that a wearable device that uses a mobile network can’t get a connection? We know it happens with smartphones today. There are so many chinks, and potential chinks, along the line of communications that it would be really difficult to finger-point in the event of the disaster. Very interesting.
It also brings to mind this whole idea of location-based information, and specifically location-based marketing. There are apps that allow people to choose to turn on their GPS tracker and have information sent to them, but consumers have a choice as to whether or not they download that. Increasingly, people don’t want to be bugged by advertisements on their mobile phone where they’re trying to do something else. How do you see this evolving? Is it possible that these kinds of location-based marketing initiatives could even be built into mobile operating systems so that consumers have no choice?
CE: Interestingly enough, as I was preparing for today, there was an article that just came out in Der Spiegel, the German newspaper, that said that Apple was already doing this, that they already track all of this and have all of this information. I don’t if it was Apple or not, but in that same article I believe they even said that there was a microphone that was just recording at all times on that device.
SE: Wow, and consumers have no idea.
Der Spiegel: This image comes from a presentation called “Your target is using a BlackBerry? Now what?” It shows an email from a Mexican government agency which was sent using BlackBerry encryption technology — and intercepted by the NSA nonetheless.
CE: That’s just crazy. I think there are many users who don’t want to be followed and turn tracking off or don’t download, but I think the world is not that well educated if you look on a global basis. I don’t think most people understand or care.
I think that if you’re in the technology space and you hang out like I do, and like you do, with a lot of technical people, there’s a lot of savviness about how to turn GPS on and off. There’s a lot of savviness about how to find out which of your apps use your GPS.
There was a controversy about a flashlight app that also did tracking recently that did not disclose that. I don’t think most people understand what that device is doing, how they’re tracking them, and then where it’s being reported. I just have a hard time believing that the average person understands this.
Then the last thought I had on that is that the people that do understand it, like you are alluding to, don’t want to be followed everywhere they go.
I see a lot of traction in the auto industry for installing this in cars. Apple announced that they were installing in Mercedes the ability to have the Apple iOS, and track where your automobile is — as an OS not as an iPhone insertion.
There’s safety, there’s weather, there’s updates — so it makes sense to a lot of people to have this in your car, but, again, it also tells everybody where you’re at.
So I think it’s going to be situational — where people are willing to share location. It’s also going to be a level of understanding.
Data Mining Your Mobile Phone
SE: It’s not even GPS tracking. I’ve been reading quite a bit about mobile apps, and apparently there are a lot of apps that collect information from, say, your address book, your web surfing history, or things that have nothing whatsoever to do the with the app, and they’re mining it for big data.
CE: Yes, whatever that means.
SE: Exactly. They’re mining it for marketing purposes or information-collection purposes. Who knows what they’re going to do with it? Most consumers, even tech-savvy consumers, don’t know what’s happening inside of an app and what that app is accessing or not accessing on their smartphone.
I have to just ask you about a follow-up question on the Der Spiegel article. Was this something that was actually confirmed, or was it speculation?
CE: I think it was speculation, and I think it might’ve been part of the Snowden release, but it just came out, and Apple of course denied it, but it was pretty detailed and pretty frightening, as a matter of fact.
SE: Really scary.
We’ll be publishing Part 2 of the interview with Christine Ekman on Friday 2 May – where we will discuss Mobile connectivity in 2024, drone-based wireless networks, technology innovation and VC technology investments.