Photo: Jason McCawley (Getty Images)
Even though I appreciate that it’s for a good cause, this app still sounds like something out of Minority Report.
Researchers at Dalhousie University in Canada have developed a smartphone app that tracks a person’s mental health based on how they use their phone, CBC reports. The hope is that by keeping tabs on patients outside of office hours, the app can help medical professionals tailor treatment options for them.
It’s called PROSIT, and testing officially began back in February, according to Dr. Sandra Meier, a psychologist with the IWK Health Centre and Dalhousie University. Around 300 people are currently using the app, half of whom are mental health patients.
“We can actually find out whether they’re anxious or depressed. It’s fairly amazing,” Meier told CBC. “So you don’t have to understand any of the content, you can just listen to people and actually you get their emotional state from the way that they talk.”
To gauge a user’s mental health, the app tracks information across 15 different categories using existing sensors on the user’s phone. Categories include how much sleep a person’s getting, how often they exercise, their call history and messaging logs, screen time, and music preferences.
Even the way a person types can help PROSIT determine their mental state, said Rita Orji, a computer scientist on its development team, in an interview with the outlet.
“When people are emotional, when you’re angry, you want to send an emotional text. Not only the speed of your typing changes, but also the force you apply on the keyboard to type also changes,” she told CBC.
In addition to monitoring all this data, PROSIT also relies on users regularly self-reporting on how they’re feeling. On a weekly basis, the app prompts users to record and submit a 90-second audio clip of them talking about the most exciting part of their week. It also periodically asks users to rate their emotions, such as how happy they are, how anxious, etc., on a five-point scale.
As you can imagine, using the app requires clicking “yes” to a long list of permission prompts, as seen in a demo on PROSIT’s website. While these researchers inarguably have better intentions for users’ data than, say, a multi-billion-dollar social media giant, any organization having that much access to someone’s phone is sure to make privacy experts squirm in their seats.
The team’s well aware of the inherent risks, Orji told CBC, and that’s why it’s taken several security precautions to protect users’ privacy.
“Our app took user privacy, security and safety into consideration as the major design objective…from the very beginning of the app design,” she said.
Before development could even begin, the app was vetted according to Dalhousie University’s ethics guidelines, and all participants are required to sign consent forms before downloading it. Any data PROSIT collects is encrypted and stored in a secure location at the IWK Health Center, Orji told the outlet. And while that may include a user’s phone logs, the team can’t access what’s being said in those calls or text messages.
“When we talk about tracking your calls or SMS, we’re actually not tracking what you say or who you talk to,” Orji said. “We’re actually just knowing the frequency, how often you call…so most of these are very high-level data that people are really comfortable giving.
Meier told CBC that while PROSIT is far from being able to predict mental health crises before they happen, the app has proven to be a helpful tool for psychologists that complements, rather than replaces, treatment for their patients. With the onset of the covid-19 pandemic, it’s also allowed mental health professionals to monitor their patients amid the stress of lockdowns and social isolation.
Personally, I don’t think my psychiatrist needs to know how much time I waste doomscrolling on Twitter or texting cute cat videos to my friends. But I can see how they could draw some pretty damning conclusions from that information.