Big Data, Pregnancies & the Inconceivable
By Tamer Abouras
Have you ever wondered if the term “conspiracy theorist” perhaps gets a bad rap? That may sound strange at first, but consider all of the science fiction and futuristic films you’ve watched or books you’ve read.
More often than not, they’re dystopian in nature. An intrusive, all-powerful, all-knowing government constantly peering over the collective shoulders of its citizenry at all times, never for a moment letting even the smallest measure of dissent be fomented. And even though there’s something to be said for drawing a distinction between believing in conspiracy theories and merely being entertained by them, the point is that their potential reality is something we’re by and large curious about.
The big news in Big Data yesterday, of course, revolved around Apple CEO Tim Cook’s letter to customers detailing the reasons behind his decision not to essentially create a new iOS operating system that is capable of being unlocked by anyone and which is stripped of some vital layers of security — such as encryption — which are presently in place.
In light of the numerous data breaches companies across the spectrum suffer, now would seem like the worst possible time for providers of devices such as the iPhone or iPad to be loosening their built-in security and privacy apparatuses. Seeing the ways in which we voluntarily offer up our own information, however, makes crystal clear the reason why those protections are more necessary than ever.
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Just take this very recent example from a Fortune feature detailing the work of Piraye Yurttas Beim, PhD, the CEO of a company called Celmatix. Clematix has developed new software for fertility doctors called Polaris and although its methods are commendable, there are justifiable reasons to feel concerned about its privacy aspects.
In the key passage of senior writer Leena Rao’s article, Polaris’s process is explained:
“Polaris takes all of a patient’s health information and compares the profile to successful outcomes with similar health characteristics. The software will then make recommendations on a course of action for the patient to get pregnant. For example, the software might tell a patient that if they continue to try to conceive naturally for the next six months, they have a 4% chance of getting pregnant. But with IVF, or in vitro fertilization, the same patient may have a 60% chance of pregnancy, taking into account her health. The software can also predict how a patient’s chances of getting pregnant will evolve as she ages, and the chances of having multiple pregnancies.”
While not without merit — as the article mentions the more than 12 fertility clinics making use of Clematix products including Polaris to help the more than seven million women in the U.S. who have issues becoming pregnant — that excerpt is exactly where the conspiracy theories and problems come to light.
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For those who have watched films such as Gattaca, or heard scientists bemoan all the negative consequences of an ever-growing human population (and suggest curbing that growth), it’s a matter of connecting the dots: the government wants to know quite a bit about us — even when they say it’s limited only to certain cases — and the handing over of our medical information through software like Polaris and the United States’ request of Tim Cook and Apple aren’t mutually exclusive things.
Eugenics is over 100 years old. China’s one child policy is still in place, albeit (slightly) relaxed. It seems inconceivable and confined to the realm of conspiracy theories, but the fact of the matter is that there are serious reasons both to stand squarely with Apple’s defense of encryption and to be leery of any product or software that could potentially leave your or your family exposed.
You could argue that some conspiracy theories are more believable because we’re so often entertained by them. But you could also point that some are more believable because they’ve become objectively more plausible.