Protecting the Cellphone: Privacy in the Digital Age

July 1, 2014 Derek Yach and Gillian Christie

On June 25, 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States was unanimous: police officials will require a warrant to search cellphones of arrested individuals. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. noted that cellphones are “such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.”

Cellphones are an integral component of human anatomy. The Vitality Institute’s Commission on Health Promotion and the Prevention of Chronic Disease in Working-Age Americans – an initiative that aimed to close gaps in evidence and place the power of prevention at the center of health policies and actions in the US – addresses the explosion in cellphone-enabled personalized health technologies that empower individuals to self-quantify and track critical health metrics thanks to their phones.

But who should provide consent to access and analyze data generated by personalized health technologies? Who owns this data? In partnership with the Institute of Medicine and Microsoft, we are convening a workshop on the ethical, legal, and social challenges associated with personalized health technologies to further explore these questions and facilitate growing investment and innovation in this field.

In 1990, the National Human Genome Research Institute’s Ethical, Legal and Social Implications Research Program was conceived to foster basic and applied research on ethical, legal, and social implications of genetic and genomic findings. As a result of this initiative, investment and innovation in genetic and genomic research have thrived, while public fear has diminished.

A comparable framework that explores ethical, legal, and social challenges of personalized health technology is required for health advancements over the long-term. This necessitates closer interaction between government and the emerging personalized-prevention field. It also demands stronger government oversight and action by public health and prevention stakeholders.

The cellphone enables individuals to carry confidential and personal information in their hands. As the Chief Justice rightly concludes, this “does not make the information any less worthy of protection.”


Are you interested in joining us in this initiative or have creative ideas to address the ethical, legal, and social challenges associated with personalized health technology? Tweet to the Vitality Institute @VitalityInst, Derek @swimdaily or Gillian @gchristie34

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