Finding the line – negotiating data privacy at times of trauma

In the early hours of Thursday morning I found myself needing to get to A&E urgently. Not so urgently that an ambulance was required but enough that it couldn’t wait until morning. We had little cash in the house and certainly not enough for a taxi from our house to the hospital and so my partner installed the Uber app on his phone and within 15 minutes we were on our way to the hospital.

On that day we took 4 Uber rides between home and the hospital, and two more for the same trip today. We have at least another two trips ahead, hopefully no more. I put it on my phone too so we both used it.

On the return trip today, when the situation was no longer so urgent I found myself thinking about this horrible traumatic situation, so much horror and pain crammed in to just three days, the worst three of my life, was represented as data points in the Uber database. The only trips we had ever made were the same, three one way to the hospital, three back again. Before this point, I hated Uber and had objected to their introduction in Nottingham. In a short weekend visiting Sheffield for their tramlines festival last summer I had three terrifying encounters with their drivers – one where an impatient driver tried overtaking on a busy road then couldn’t and undertook almost forcing us in to oncoming traffic and nearly crashing in to a parked car himself, and twice where my partner and I had started crossing a road at a pedestrian crossing when the driver had sped through a red light. I also objected to the way they treated their customer’s data through their ‘god view’, and their abuse and harassment of a journalist. But I had a crisis and I needed to get somewhere and making the trip in to town to get cash out was not easy to do.

And so here I am, distracting myself from all that has happened and is continuing to happen by thinking about that line when it comes to choosing how to interact with the digital world around us and to whom we give our data. I don’t trust Uber and hate that this traumatic life event is data points on their screen. When I was looking for information about what was happening to me in the weeks prior to that emergency, I also used VPN and in-private browsing because I didn’t want this private part of my life being used by advertisers to build a profile of me and sell things to me based on it. However the combination of the search history on my phone while I was sitting in many different waiting rooms and those journey points means that somebody with access to this data would easily find out something that I’m not even comfortable talking about with people I know never mind marketers. Of course I know that no individual person is sitting in an office looking at my individual data (although do I know this for a fact?) but somehow the anonymity of that aggregated data is worse. My private pain is just a set of data points and a profile to be targeted.

There are no answers to be offered here. I’ve been struggling to find my comfort level in this data-driven world for a long time. There are obvious advantages to be gained from turning a blind eye to the data gathering and privacy loss but there is also a significant price to pay. Private points of our lives take on a life of their own. I have a profile as a person who has made regular trips to a hospital and has used a specific service and made specific searches during that time and based on that my future actions are probably very predictable. That makes me uncomfortable.