Adam Tanner, University of Alaska Fairbanks Snedden Chair and writer in residence at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University, will be presenting his newest book, “Our Bodies, Our Data,” to UAA and the Anchorage community.
Tanner was first exposed to data journalism when he was working as a foreign correspondent. Working in locales such as Russia, Germany and Eastern Europe, Tanner became aware of state-led data collecting by the communist regimes he worked in.
“When I visited East Germany right before the fall of the Berlin wall, which was in 1989, they had secret police agents follow me around on one day. They produced an extensive file about me, more than 60 pages for one day, about what I was doing,” Tanner said. “Those were the early instances where I became aware about personal data gathering.”
Learning more about data collecting, Tanner was inspired to write a book in 2014 called “What Stays in Vegas.” This book examined data collecting in regards to marketing in the United States.
“I was very interested in how businesses are collecting ever more information about us all, mostly for sales and marketing to try and sell us things. Now in researching that book I came to find out there’s also a big trade in our medical information and that trade is much harder to understand,” Tanner said.
Discovering the trade in medical information in research of his first book, Tanner decided to dedicate an entire book to health industry data collection.
Tanner’s goal is to highlight a lesser known data collection in the health industry, something many Americans may not even be aware of.
“Many of us know that if you use Google or Facebook or these great free internet services there’s a price to pay. the price is you’re giving up information about yourself and then they are advertising to you in return. But at the same time far fewer people realize that your medical information is also for sale,” Tanner said. “It’s quite an interesting story about how a multi-billion dollar business emerged in recent years and decades, mostly without the public understanding.”
Tanner hopes the presentation ignites discussion and understanding on current health industry policy changes.
“In order to decide what’s best for the country, what’s the best policy, we need to understand what’s going on,” Tanner said. “If people don’t know there’s a hidden trade in patient data then it’s hard to have this intelligent public discussion. I think it’s interesting for people to learn how extensive this trade is and then we can talk about the best safeguards and practices when it comes to medical information.”
Some may think this medical information trade doesn’t affect them, but Tanner notes that the industry-wide data collecting affects people all around us and may affect others down the line if current policies don’t change.
“Imagine that you’re totally healthy. You go to the doctor hardly ever, you’ll have a cold once in awhile. You might think this is not so important for me, but so many of us know people who suffer from mental health issues or have had some sexual health issues or other kinds of problems. It could be a classmate, relative or old friend,” Tanner said, “For those people information about their health if it’s widely circulated, could be damaging to them. It could lead to problems getting employed, problems getting life insurance, it could lead to embarrassment. Even if it doesn’t directly affect you now, these kinds of issues are important to people you know and have met and are all around you.”
Tanner will be presenting from 6:30 p.m. – 8 p.m., Feb. 6 in UAA Consortium Library room 307. During the week, Tanner will be switching places with UAA’s Atwood Chair Julia O’Malley. Tanner will take over O’Malley’s classes for the week while O’Malley will be taking over Tanner’s classes at UAF.