Smartphones will begin categorizing users’ mental health; gun seizures will follow

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iPhoneThe Dig­i­tal Age has pro­duced some remark­able tech­nol­o­gy and will con­tin­ue to do so, but as each new inno­va­tion springs forth, more of us are find­ing that we are not as com­fort­able with it as we once thought we might be.

One of the lat­est exam­ples comes from a new iPhone app that appears capa­ble of gaug­ing one’s men­tal health — though how accu­rate­ly it can do so remains ques­tion­able, as does what author­i­ties might do with such information.

As report­ed by The Wall Street Jour­nal:

Toward the end of Janisse Flow­er­s’s preg­nan­cy, a nurse at her gyne­col­o­gist’s office asked her to down­load an iPhone app that would track how often she text mes­saged with friends, how long she talked on the phone and how far she trav­eled each day.

The app was part of an effort by Ms. Flow­ers ‘s health-care provider to test whether smart­phone data could help detect symp­toms of post­par­tum depres­sion, an under­diag­nosed con­di­tion affect­ing women after they give birth.

The app was devel­oped by, Inc., a San Fran­cis­co-based firm that says it com­pared data from Flow­ers and near­ly 200 oth­er women against answers giv­en for a week­ly sur­vey used to diag­nose depres­sion. The fir­m’s ana­lysts said they found that behav­ioral pat­terns like decreased mobil­i­ty and length­ened phone calls became linked with poor over­all mood in the surveys.

Designed to track and flag behavior

It’s very creepy to think some­one can tell your mood” based on smart­phone data, Flow­ers, who gave birth to twins last year, told WSJ. How­ev­er, she added, “I felt like this was some­thing that was going to help me while I was in a vul­ner­a­ble place.”

The app is one of a new gen­er­a­tion of health-sur­veil­lance tech­nolo­gies that are being employed by doc­tors, health­care providers, hos­pi­tals them­selves and even health insur­ance com­pa­nies. Like fit­ness track­ers, such as “Fit­Bit,” which record run­ning dis­tances and burned calo­ries, the new apps and oth­er tech­no­log­i­cal tools mea­sure the vol­ume of text mes­sag­ing, the tone of voice in calls and oth­er behav­ioral pat­terns to get a sense of a patien­t’s psy­cho­log­i­cal con­di­tion. Doc­tors say men­tal health has a strong link to phys­i­cal health.

Health insur­er Aet­na Inc., for instance, says it uses voice-analy­sis soft­ware on some tele­phone calls to get peo­ple who receive short-term dis­abil­i­ty ben­e­fits back to work soon­er,” WSJ reports.

Adds CEO Anmol Madan: “There are four bil­lion phones on the plan­et, and it turns out they’re incred­i­bly pow­er­ful diaries of a per­son­’s life.”

But how accu­rate are such apps, real­ly? And if they’re not all that accu­rate, at least at this time, is it a good idea for health providers and insur­ers to rely on them so soon? Many do.

As WSJ noted:’s app, called, is being used by 30 med­ical cen­ters, includ­ing Kaiser Per­ma­nente and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, San Fran­cis­co, the com­pa­ny says.

What’s more, tax­pay­ers are on the hook now as well.

The Nation­al Insti­tutes of Health has award­ed $2.42 mil­lion in grant mon­ey to researchers at the Har­vard School of Pub­lic Health who are devel­op­ing a smart­phone app designed to exam­ine and assess fac­tors like when patients lock and unlock their phones, in order to deter­mine sleep­ing pat­terns in those diag­nosed with psy­chi­atric problems.

Not all are ready to trust the technology

Also, researchers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan are work­ing on an app that will record and ana­lyze patients’ speech and voice pat­terns dur­ing calls to gauge whether they are near depres­sion or mania.

A num­ber of apps are aimed at treat­ing men­tal health con­di­tions. How­ev­er, oth­er pat­terns — like when some­one may sud­den­ly stop call­ing fam­i­ly mem­bers or begins stay­ing inside their home for a week — can also serve as poten­tial signs of encroach­ing behav­ioral issues.

Still, many hos­pi­tals and doc­tors are skit­tish about trust­ing the apps — espe­cial­ly when it comes to the use of data which they will collect.

I won­der how com­pa­nies are going to reas­sure peo­ple that when they down­load an app that can track every­thing they’re doing, the data will nev­er be used against them,” Dr. Tim­o­thy G. Fer­ris, an internist and senior vice pres­i­dent of pop­u­la­tion health man­age­ment at Part­ners Health­Care — Mass­a­chu­setts’ largest health­care provider — told WSJ.

Oth­ers are con­cerned that such tech­nolo­gies may be employed by health providers and even police, even­tu­al­ly, to deprive peo­ple of their firearms. In many states, those diag­nosed with men­tal health issues are not per­mit­ted to own guns, but if the diag­no­sis is incor­rect, then some could be undu­ly punished.

Such apps are “going to cre­ate a bunch of false pos­i­tives until they get real­ly, real­ly good at the algo­rithms,” Fer­ris told WSJ.