Our phones know a lot about us. They store our personal information, photos, and passwords. Ad agencies use our phone’s data to figure out what we like and don’t like. We use phones to store our most private info—credit cards, bank information, SSNs. GPS tracks where we are.
Since the late ‘90s, smartphones have gone from functional tools to handheld personal records. And, thanks to a couple of new studies, Apple might be able to know even more about us.
Apple’s New Studies
In August 2020, UCLA announced a three-year study sponsored by and conducted with Apple. The study is designed to help change the detection and treatment of depression.
“This collaboration has the potential to transform behavioral health research and clinical care,” Dr. Nelson Freimer wrote in the announcement.
“Current approaches to treating depression rely almost entirely on the subjective recollections of depression sufferers. This is an important step for obtaining objective and precise measurements.” This data would, in turn, “guide both diagnosis and treatment.”
The study is a part of UCLA’s Depression Grand Challenge initiative. And it will take a grand challenge to combat this issue. One in four women experiences depression compared to one in six men.
Despite being more common in women, more men die by suicide each year. 7% of men with depression will die by suicide, whereas only 1% of women will.
Last year, the U.N. called depression one of the “greatest causes of misery” in the world. It’s a global health concern that affects all ages, races, and genders.
To track this illness, UCLA will use Apple technology. This includes the iPhone, Apple Watch, and Beddit.
Five months later, in January 2021, Biogen announced a similar project. With Apple, Biogen has started a study to find Apple products’ role in monitoring brain health.
The study’s main goals are to develop digital biomarkers to help monitor cognitive performance and identify early signs of MCI (mild cognitive impairment).
Is It Legal For Apple To Use Its Users’ Data?
At first glance, this news almost seems satirical. Several studies show a clear link between depression and smartphone use. Now they are supposed to help?
Selling our search history seemed creepy enough. This seemed even more invasive. So, at the risk of sounding like a conspiracist, my first question was—is this legal?
In short, yes, it is. But depending on how you feel about Apple’s privacy policies, you still might get a bad taste in your mouth.
Apple CEO Tim Cook touts privacy as one of the company’s top priorities. To maintain privacy, Apple aims to use algorithms that work on users’ devices. The company says they don’t plan on sending data to Apple servers, the Wall Street Journal reports.
Still, this mental health data is very personal. For some, it’s an intimate detail about a person’s life—something not even shared with some family members.
Regardless, our phones would find a way to glean data from us one way or another. And in this case, it might be beneficial.
So, how do the studies work?
How The Studies Work
The UCLA study will track data from the iPhone’s video camera, keyboard, and audio sensors. It will collect Apple Watch data on movement, vital signs, and sleep.
Data used may include “facial expressions and how they speak.” It will also track “the pace and frequency of their walks, sleep patterns, and heart and respiration rates,” WSJ reports. “They may also measure the speed of their typing, frequency of their typos, and content of what they type.”
Researchers will use this data to determine users’ emotions, concentration and energy levels. The study will use questionnaires for cross-reference.
According to FierceBiotech, Biogen’s study will use similar sources to track subtle changes in a person’s movement or interactions. These subtle changes may, over time, “add up and correlate with the earliest signs of MCI.”
Signs of MCI include being easily distracted and memory loss. However, these signs may worsen for years before finally being diagnosed. By the time it’s bad enough for a doctor to notice, it’s often too late.
UCLA and Biotech are both trying to figure out how to find problems before they become overwhelming.
Is This The Future Of Medicine?
In UCLA’s press release, Dr. Freimer states that this study will provide the most extensive evidence available to date regarding the use of digital tools in tracking behavioral health.
“We envision a future in which these tools will become indispensable for depression sufferers and those providing them with care,” he writes.
Biogen also believes their study will be a game-changer. “Strategies that optimize brain health are the key to reducing the risk of dementia,” Nora Super states in Biogen’s announcement.
“This study has the potential to discover transformative ways to monitor and assess brain health. We are always eager to see technological innovation. And we are particularly interested in the user convenience of data collected through the use of everyday devices,” Super continues.
The studies are a logical next step. We carry our phones everywhere. We tell them just about everything.
It seems as though the experts have followed suit and gone straight to the source—the thing you’re holding in your hand right now.