Behaviour change in an era of big data

Sunday 3 November, 12:0013:00, Exhibition Hall 2Moral dilemmas

The amount of data generated by our activities online has opened up previously unimaginable possibilities for services, products and governments to track and change our behaviour. Smartwatches can detect a lack of movement and encourage us to take a walk, our phones can encourage us to spend less time scrolling through social media, and governments can track our behaviour to encourage us to lead healthier lives. While many such interventions could have positive effects on our health and wellbeing – such as companies being able to detect problem behaviours like excessive drinking and target advice at consumers – many worry that there are also more sinister applications of these technologies.

For example, privacy campaigners were alarmed by news this year that gaming company Activision Blizzard has been encouraging employees to use health-monitoring technology, potentially sharing information as varied as fertility data and sleeping habits with employers. At a more extreme end, China’s burgeoning ‘social credit system’ has likewise alarmed many at the prospect of governments restricting access to everything from housing to transport depending on how trustworthy a citizen is deemed to be.

On the other hand, what if health services could analyse our shopping data and painlessly switch us from high- to low-fat foods that tasted just as good, or switched around the sugar content of foods to help diabetics? Perhaps companies could automatically highlight when choices, like gambling, begin to become unaffordable for us? It seems clear that while there are implications for our privacy and liberty, the use of our data does have the potential to improve our lives.

However, who gets to decide what our interests are? Should we be completely free to ignore our fitness trackers and be unhealthy? What’s more, when the government tracks us and tries to change our behaviour, is this any different from when corporations use our data to nudge us into buying things? What about when an employer tracks us to improve productivity at work? Should we be able to opt out of some interventions and not others and, if so, what is the distinction? How far should the use of data go when it comes to changing our behaviour?