Samsung Health: How self-tracking trivialises our ethical concerns
Whether it is about giving an app information about your menstrual cycle, using your personalised discount card at the local supermarket, checking how much time you spend on your phone or how many steps you have taken, self-tracking has become heavily normalised. It has crept into the daily events of our lives. We, without question, deliver our data to apps like that, while in turn, we can have an overview of our behaviour or even our physical state. However, is it right to give up such information to the corporations who manage these apps?
Background of Samsung Health
Samsung Health is a free application developed to track different aspects of daily life, like physical activity, food consumption and sleep. The app claims this can be done to manage your health and eventually create a healthy lifestyle (Samsung, 2022). Currently, the app has over one billion downloads, since it is available not only for Samsung phone users but also on iPhones and other devices.
There is a lack when it comes to research on this specific application. There have been studies on comparable applications, like FitBit and applications that track your menstrual cycle (Olde Hampsink, 2021; Schabio, 2021). In these articles, there is a focus on the workings of another specific application, which cannot be generalised to every application tracking a consumer’s daily life, and thus cannot also be immediately compared to Samsung Health.
Furthermore, research has been done on the direct effects of using self-tracking fitness applications and in which population group self-tracking applications are more likely to be used (Alturki, 2016; Muntaner-Mas et al., 2019; Régnier & Chauvel, 2018). There has thus been a big focus in academic research on physical implications instead of ethical implications relating to privacy and data collection.
Tracking, privacy and surveillance capitalism
Firstly, what is understood by the term privacy needs to be clarified. There are many views on what privacy actually means. In this essay, Petronio’s Communication Privacy Management (CPM) theory will be used, which states that privacy is control in access to oneself which in turn can be managed by opening and closing boundaries depending on privacy turbulence, like context or situation. (Petronio, 2013).
In order to understand why the Samsung Health application tracks one’s data, there will be a focus on surveillance capitalism, so there needs to be established what surveillance capitalism actually means. According to Zuboff (2015), this is an ideology of datafication. This means that corporations have arranged a system where they can collect as much data as possible from their users to then sell the data to other parties for money. Surveillance capitalism revolves around specific communicative approval which the customer liaises with the company or third parties to document details for future use or monitory,
In collecting the data of Samsung health users, gamification and behaviour modification play a huge role. The notion of gamification refers to “a form of service packaging where a core service is enhanced by a rules-based service system that provides feedback and interaction mechanisms to the user to facilitate and support the users’ overall value creation" (Huotari & Hamari, 2011). Gamified applications thus offer services like a reward system or progress bars to influence the consumer so they keep on playing the ‘game.' The notion of behaviour modification refers to “the process of changing patterns of human behaviour over the long term using various motivational techniques, mainly consequences (negative reinforcement) and rewards (positive reinforcement)" (Cocchimiglio, 2022).
To collect the data, there is an investigation into the Samsung Health application. This mainly includes the privacy policies and terms & conditions one has to accept before usage of the application. Furthermore, there will be a focus on the activities one can perform on the application itself after having set up an account. These activities include the reward system, the Together function and challenges that Samsung offers to the users of the Samsung Health application. This data will be linked to the above-mentioned theory to assess ethical considerations eventually.
Tracking in Samsung Health
The Together function is meant to play with other people. You can find other people by syncing up your application with your contacts, searching for usernames, and challenging random people. The challenge is all about walking more steps a day. Winning a monthly challenge means winning prizes, levelling up and being crowned as ‘boss’ in the application. The application is thus heavily gamified. It gives immediate feedback about whether what you are doing is right or not, so you keep on playing the game in the right way and overall feel happy about your achievements and yourself.
This notion thus immediately ties into behaviour modification. Since your friends are playing against you and you can instantly compare your scores with players all around the world and even personally compare with your friends, you feel like you should be better than others and thus alter your behaviour to come out on top. This is the case, according to the developers of the Samsung Health app. According to them, “challenge participants take over 22% more steps a day than the average Samsung Health user” (Korea, 2021).
Benefits for Consumers & Samsung
One of the more obvious positive benefits is the improvement of lifestyle the consumers of the Samsung Health application experience. The application leans itself for behaviour modification, which, apart from using the application more, also means that they can easily look into their daily lives and adjust to reach their personal goals. According to Hamari et al. (2014), gamification does, in the majority of research, produce positive effects when it comes to behaviour modification, especially when users are motivated and involved in the gamified function, which in this case, does correlate with Samsung Health.
Furthermore, Hamari et al. (2014) suggest that gamification makes users keep the application, especially when they have become long-term users, since “removing gamification might have detrimental effects to those users who are still engaged by gamification, possibly due to loss aversion from losing, e.g. earned badges and points”. Therefore the instalment of the gamification element into the application keeps more customers linked to Samsung, which is economically seen as a positive aspect of Samsung.
Disadvantages for Consumers & Samsung
The use of surveillance capitalism can have many consequences for the consumer since the data can be seen as harmful or sensitive. Samsung is allowed to sell information like BMI, blood pressure level and menstrual cycle to third parties, meaning that these third parties could start advertising according to your physical health. This can be sensitive or harmful since, from the data, companies could conclude someone is pregnant, has a terminal disease or is obese, while this information may be untrue. Advertisements for such users may thus include products like weight loss diets, medicines or products for a baby, which can be highly insensitive, incorrect and even offensive.
Samsung furthermore does not take any responsibility for the incorrect information they not only show the user but also sell to third parties. They state in their terms in conditions that:
Any information you obtain from Samsung Health may not be suitable, accurate, complete or reliable and that Samsung [...] will not be held liable for any injuries, damages, losses and costs associated with Samsung Health, nor for the accuracy or reliability of any information found, acquired, or accessed through Samsung Health. (Samsung Health, 2022)
They furthermore claim that they are “not engaged in the practice of medicine and that Samsung does not determine the appropriate medical use of Samsung Health.” They thus do not seek to improve their app’s correctness or set-up and expect the consumers to read every line of the terms and conditions to know that what Samsung Health presents could be highly inaccurate data.
In addition, it does have to be mentioned that while they sell personal information, Samsung Health does not directly intrude into their users' privacy. Samsung Health users can choose not to use certain functions of the application, like the gamified Together function or showcase their location, and therefore give up certain data. It is furthermore not mandatory to sync a third-party device like a Samsung watch, which can track more detailed data like blood glucose level and body fat. Users thus can control their access to themselves by closing these boundaries (Petronio, 2013).
Samsung Health offers multiple types of self-tracking. Apart from a self-tracking function, users can compete with others in the gamified Together function. Users benefit from this app by having the possibility to improve their lifestyle. Samsung benefits from the number of users choosing the platform and thus makes a profit. This, however, is done by using surveillance capitalism and thus encounters multiple ethical issues. The sensitive data given to Samsung can be sold to third parties and thus, inappropriate advertisements can be shown indirectly because of the Samsung Health application. Furthermore, this data might be incorrect, for which Samsung claims no responsibility.
Users do, however, choose what they want to track and share in the Samsung Health application. This does not mean users know the consequences of what they share. Furthermore, it is unknown how the data they receive is interpreted by companies and thus presented in the application and advertisements to them.
The possibility of Samsung Health spreading wrong information about their customers and showing them wrong information while not taking responsibility makes them ethically seen as an improper corporation. The chance that users can improve their lifestyle is made irrelevant by their admitting that their application could be fully wrong about the users’ progress.
Further research can be done on the effects of gamification on users’ motivation and engagement and the influence of possible action of tracking applications like Samsung Health to get a more in-depth understanding of the user's behaviour and motivation of using self-tracking of applications based on lifestyle.
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Cocchimiglio, S. (2022, April 25). What Is Behavior Modification? Psychology, Definition, Techniques & Applications | BetterHelp. BetterHelp.
Hamari, J., Koivisto, J., & Sarsa, H. (2014, January). Does gamification work?--a literature review of empirical studies on gamification. In 2014 47th Hawaii international conference on system sciences (pp. 3025-3034).
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Zuboff (2015) surveillance capitalism: Zuboff, S., Möllers, N., Wood, D. M., & Lyon, D. (2019). Surveillance Capitalism: An Interview with Shoshana Zuboff. Surveillance & Society, 17(1/2), 257-266.