Ask the Gerontechnologist: Addressing the privacy paradox and smart technology use among older adults
By Jessica Francis | Dec 5, 2018 | column, The Gerontechnologist

How smart is too smart when it comes to technology in the home? In this edition of Ask the Gerontechnologist, we explore the “privacy paradox” that exists for older adults when it comes to the potential benefits of smart technology use set against the desire to maintain sanctuary in their homes and personal lives.


Dr. Jessica Francis is a gerontechnologist and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Rochester’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute and the Center for Health + Technology in Rochester, NY. She is also a co-founder of Trilogy Think Tank, an interdisciplinary, multi-site research collaborative effort focusing on the impact of digital games on healthy aging. Jessica’s work focuses on the intersection of aging, technology, and social isolation. Jessica has presented her work at conferences and scientific meetings across the U.S. and abroad and her research has been funded by the NIA/NIH and NSF. In 2018 she received the Pearl J. Aldrich Award for research to advance the field of gerontology and geriatrics. E-mail Jessica

Addressing the privacy paradox and smart technology use among older adults

Take a moment and think about all of the personal data you generate and disseminate on a daily basis online. Do you ever stop to wonder who sees that data or to what degree of monitoring your online behavior is subjected? Does that thought seem overwhelming and a bit uncomfortable? Chances are, you are not alone. It has been well-documented that as consumers, patients, and simply human beings who appreciate ease and efficiency, we are often willing to sacrifice our privacy if the end result benefits us. This is the “privacy paradox.” It is a term used by researchers to describe the discrepancy between our words and our actions related to the issue of privacy.

In our “big data” driven society, marked by the development and proliferation of smart sensors in the home and networked computing technologies, the privacy paradox is arguably more relevant than ever and is particularly salient to the older adult community. Research related to the use of smart technologies such as cameras, sensors, wearables (eg. Fitbit), telepresence robots, and intelligent personal assistants (eg. Amazon’s Alexa), has shown that for older adults, these technologies can promote aging in place, however, one of the primary barriers to tech adoption is the concern for privacy. That being said, older adults tend to see past such concerns for privacy if a technology or modality has the potential to benefit health and safety. Essentially, in this instance, well-being trumps privacy.

In a series of focus groups I conducted with colleagues at Michigan State University, we asked a group of older adults their perspectives on using telepresence robots in their homes to connect with family members. In this case, a telepresence robot is a remote-controlled, mobile device on wheels with a tablet interface that employs videoconferencing technology, and can be maneuvered via computer keyboard. Overall, our participants were open to using the telepresence robots in their homes. Privacy concerns however, were seen as the main drawback. Participants expressed discomfort with family members being able to access and engage the robot freely, the potential for hacking, and skepticism regarding the microphones and video capabilities – referring to modalities they perceived as instruments of surveillance.

On the other hand, when we asked what they would change about the telepresence robots to make them more appealing, participants asked for modifications involving an increase in the amount and capabilities of sensors included in the robot, the addition of a feedback and alert feature that would directly connect to emergency responders in the event of an accident, and enhancing the maneuverability of the telepresence robot so that it could go up and down stairs to have access to the entire home. Our participants’ responses were very much in line with previous quantitative research that examined the acceptance of in-home robots and social technology among older adults.

There is no way around it. Our society is getting older and in order to promote healthy and independent aging we will have to consider and incorporate smart technologies and assistive technologies into our homes. To do so in a way that does not impede on the comfort and autonomy of our older adults, technology developers have to walk the razor’s edge between providing older adults with technology that will enhance their safety and health while not crossing into the realm of surveillance. This may require more and better data security measures, it may necessitate brand new technology, and/or simply just reimagining the capabilities and functionalities of existing, ubiquitous technology. Whatever the remedy, there is much discussion to be had about implementing smart technology into our homes as we age – a discussion that would benefit greatly from the unique voices and visions of our older adult neighbors.


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@dhealth2018 2019


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