Tech Companies Are Profiling Us From Before Birth

Veronica Barassi:

Tracking the health of the unborn and women is certainly not new, yet with the use of pregnancy apps, this surveillance and tracking has reached a new level. These apps are enabling a situation whereby corporations have access to a grab bag of personal data on the unborn, including not only health markers like weight and heart rate, but also cultural background, the parents’ thoughts, family ties, and family medical history, to name a few.

Once a baby is born, parents might use baby trackers or wearables to manage the baby’s routine and record sleep times, feeds, and bowel movements. Again, documenting these behaviors is not new. Families of newborns have historically jotted this information in journals. When my first daughter was born, my mother showed me the journal that she kept of me as a newborn. Written in black ink on yellow pages and in my mother’s familiar handwriting, there was a list of feeding times, naps, and diaper changes. She kept the journal in a drawer of her study and no one outside our family had access to it. Consequently, even if the tracking of the baby, like the tracking of the unborn, has always existed, baby apps — with their charts, reports, and interactive elements — have greatly transformed this historical practice and given it a new datacentric dimension.

I remember being especially fascinated by one user who wrote how upset she was about losing her “kick count data” and ended her comment with an angry, “Shame on you!”

As one respondent — the mother of a 13-year-old and a 6-month-old baby — told me when I was conducting research for Child | Data | Citizen, a three-year-long research project that explores the datafication of childhood in the era of big data and artificial intelligence, data tracking was key to the “running of her family life,” and she was particularly grateful for a baby-tracking app. “I love data when it comes to work,” Katie told me. “I love data when it comes to everything, because it gives you information and you can plan. I also use self-tracking apps for fitness for the same reasons.”