Amy Webb (@amywebb)
is the author of The
Big Nine: How theTech
Machines Could Warp
Humanity. She is the
founder of the Future
Today Institute and a
professor of strategic
foresight at the NYU Stern
School of Business.
Your (Very) Personal Data
What a world driven by biometrics will bring.
AMY WEBB ; LEADING EDGE
ast month, I did something for
the first time since 1994: I hung
out at the mall. I bought a soda
at the food court. I browsed
the racks at department stores.
Eventually, I bought a T-shirt.
In many ways, nothing had
changed. There were still
plenty of teenagers and mall walkers in comfy shoes. And yet
something was completely di;erent. During that day, I shed
mounds of data—not just where I shopped and what I bought,
but also my intentions, interests, and idiosyncrasies.
Whether you’re at the mall or on your couch, information
about you can be captured from your voice, eyes, posture—even
your bone and capillary structures. How often do you switch
between your mobile device and desktop computer? Do you
make more video than voice calls? How likely are you to
purchase the things in your shopping cart on Sunday morning
versus Tuesday afternoon? All of these questions touch on
biometrics, which applies statistical analysis to biological and
behavioral data, and which can be used to recognize not just
who you are but also how you’re likely to act. This year, you’ll
start hearing a lot about this hot new field.
Today’s behavioral biometrics tools can map and measure
how you interact with every screen you own—what force you
use to press down, whether you fat-finger your C;’s and V;’s,
and how quickly you flick your fingers when hunting through
search results. Those tools know your unique typing pattern
on a physical keyboard, too—if you’re someone who constantly
spells behavioral wrong, and whether you hold down the delete
button or repeatedly tap it.
That’s why BioCatch, which has built a system that captures
and correlates more than 2,000 data points to build individual
user profiles, says it knows within seconds if you’ve logged into
a computer using someone else’s user name and password.
It’s why call centers can now identify a customer’s age, gender,
sentiment, and emotional state just by listening to his or
her voice and tone, thanks to tools like IBM Watson’s Tone
Analyzer. Meanwhile, Nuance Communications has built
biometric software used by banks, telecom and insurance
companies, and government agencies to create more than
400 million “voiceprints” for their customers. Those voice-
prints, they say, are far more secure than passwords or PINs.
Amazon recently secured patents for biometric sensing,
including for an Alexa feature that could listen not just for your
words, but also for your tone of voice, your coughs, and even
your level of stress or fatigue. The result: a machine that may
someday passively detect if you are sick. But Amazon could go
further: It could determine whether other people in your neigh-
borhood also sound congested, as well as analyze your previous
online shopping habits and sift through your past grocery
receipts to make a range of shopping suggestions—cough drops,
fresh chicken soup, tissues. It might also trail you around the
web with digital ads.
Passive behavioral biometric scanning extends to real-world
objects, too. Walmart recently filed a patent for a connected
shopping cart handle that can detect a shopper’s heart rate,
palm temperature, grip force, and walking speed to determine
if he or she is struggling or agitated. If so, the cart would ping
an employee who could walk over to help the customer.
These reams of bits and bytes, while convenient, bring up
thorny questions. Who is the legal guardian of our data? Do
companies have the right to change end-user agreements
regarding our data? What should data governance look like in
an era of behavioral biometrics? This is especially important
since most people have no idea just how much data they’re
generating—and what can be done with it.
Once these questions are sorted out, though, we could start
to see physical and digital realms merge seamlessly in a whole
new way. Which points to more enriched, personalized experiences at home and as we move about the world—or while feeling strange pangs of nostalgia over a soda at the local mall.