‘Like Modern-Day Phrenology’: Will a New Slew of Mobile Apps Improve Mental Health or Put Users at Risk?

Keerthi Vedantam

Keerthi Vedantam is a bioscience reporter at dot.LA. She cut her teeth covering everything from cloud computing to 5G in San Francisco and Seattle. Before she covered tech, Keerthi reported on tribal lands and congressional policy in Washington, D.C. Connect with her on Twitter, Clubhouse (@keerthivedantam) or Signal at 408-470-0776.

‘Like Modern-Day Phrenology’: Will a New Slew of Mobile Apps Improve Mental Health or Put Users at Risk?

The pandemic has been a disaster for our mental health.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the number of people experiencing depression, anxiety and other mental health issues nearly doubled among Americans. Little surprise, then, that the demand for mental health services has skyrocketed.

As the country grapples with its mental health crisis, Apple has a proposal: Turn to your phone.

The tech giant is betting that the smartphone provides a trove of data that could help alleviate common mental health struggles — though not everyone is convinced it's such a good idea.

UCLA researchers have been working with Apple to see if an iPhone can detect depression and anxiety via so-called emotion recognition, the Wall Street Journal reported in September. The project is still in early development stages, and the company has not announced what the end product will look like.

Apple's venture with UCLA will triangulate a slew of data points including facial expressions, audible cues like tone, how often and how fast people are walking, heart rate, speed and accuracy of typing and what they type to determine what signals correspond with certain mental illnesses, according to the outlet. They will also ask participants to fill out surveys about how they feel. (Apple and UCLA did not respond to requests for comment.)

"If it's true that mental health affects people's day-to-day lives, then the question is in what ways does it affect people's day-to-day lives? And in what of those ways is there something measurable?" said UCLA professor Dr. Arash Naeim, who was not involved in the research with Apple.

But activists and experts warn the technology, which would use facial expressions as a data point in determining a user's mental health, could be used to exploit the people who use it.

"We have rampant mental health issues and no good routine way of screening for them. So if you were able to develop an automated way to really understand depression, anxiety, stress levels, that's really an advancement," said Ritika Chaturvedi, a precision medicine expert at the USC Schaeffer Center. "But — as with everything in tech — without guardrails, without regulation and without really understanding what the technology is actually doing, it's rife for abuse."

Facial recognition technology has long been used to match faces to identities, and is a trusted surveillance tool of government and law enforcement agents — often at the expense of activists, journalists and immigrants.

But emotion recognition takes it to another level by using one's face and attempting to infer people's emotions, which could heighten tensions in dangerous law enforcement situations, or have racist implications (like when Google's AI classified some photos of Black people as gorillas).

"I am a deep skeptic that such technology can actually work in any meaningful way," said Mark McKenna, a privacy law professor at UCLA. (McKenna was not involved in the research with Apple.) "So I think there's a huge risk of error here in ways that could be really damaging."

McKenna points to a variety of potential nefarious uses for this technology. For example, it might be deployed as a more sophisticated lie detector test — one that looks at emotional cues to determine whether someone is anxious. It could also bolster existing technology that claims to use facial recognition to determine someone's likelihood of committing a crime.

"It's kind of like modern-day phrenology done with digital tools," he said.

Doctors Are Relying More and More on Digital Technology

Even before this latest mental health bet, Apple was on the hunt to better utilize its products to improve users' health, as noted by its recent effort to expand the Apple Watch's capabilities as a glucose monitor. It has also added tools on the smartwatch to detect irregular heart rhythms and notifications to limit audio exposure on the iPhone.

These tools can often fill in the gaps for doctors who often rely on their patients to be accurate historians about their own health, diet and emotions. Arguably, the most intimate connection anyone has is with their smartphone. If patients can't articulate they're feeling depressed, aren't even aware they are dealing with a mental health struggle, it's almost impossible to provide them with proper care as poor mental health can be the root of other health problems.

"There's a lot of potential for technology to be able to leverage more information about the individual, make a contribution in their lives and health," said Naeim, the UCLA professor. "The future is having better data and using the better data in a smarter way to better make an impact on our patients' lives and as well as empowering patients themselves."

Health Privacy in a Digital World

But Apple isn't the only company that is collecting and leveraging highly personal data points. A plethora of period-tracking apps, mental health apps and food-tracking apps have the ability to collect and sell data on their customers.

"Health privacy has always been one of the biggest categories that people have been worried about" in data privacy circles, said McKenna. "We have a regulatory system, but that regulatory system is woefully inadequate for the kinds of tools that we have now, and especially where we live in a world where everybody is creating apps to track all kinds of information."

That regulatory system, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), was established in 1996 to standardize how doctors stored and shared patient health information so they don't jeopardize their privacy. The law only applies to health care institutions, and it's simply a disclosure that notifies a patient how their health information can be used.

"There's a huge industry of apps and health data That aren't regulated by HIPAA because they're not health care providers," McKenna said.

According to the Journal, Apple hopes to be able to warn people they may be struggling with mental health problems and ask them to seek care. But using facial recognition as a data point to determine one's emotion has use cases that reach far beyond the realm of mental health.

Photo by Carles Rabada on Unsplash

Emotion Recognition Is the New Wave of Facial Recognition

A 2019 study by psychologists at Northeastern Universityfound that there are no objective ways to measure how one's face corresponds with emotions. Furrowing eyebrows, upturned corners of the mouth and a scrunched nose are not conclusively tied to a specific emotion. People's faces are simply constructed in different ways; pinched eyebrows on one person could be just close eyebrows on another.

That doesn't mean the technology isn't being used. 4 Little Trees, a Hong Kong company, has found success in a program that is said to be able to detect emotions in children as they attend school from home. AI-based emotion-detection software has been used on the Uyghur Muslims in China.

Chaturvedi said there needs to be guardrails put in place to make sure people can enjoy the benefits of this kind of technology without being exploited, and it would need to come from the public policy leaders and privacy experts.

"Because you need to give up a certain level of privacy, it makes it so that bad actors exploit the same technology," she said. "What we need are the guardrails to protect from harm, rather than the privacy itself being the fundamental issue."


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How the 'Thrift Haul' Boosted Secondhand Ecommerce Platforms

Lon Harris
Lon Harris is a contributor to dot.LA. His work has also appeared on ScreenJunkies, RottenTomatoes and Inside Streaming.
How the 'Thrift Haul' Boosted Secondhand Ecommerce Platforms
Evan Xie

If you can believe it, it’s been more than a decade since rapper Macklemore extolled the virtues of thrift shopping in a viral music video. But while scouring the ranks of vintage clothing stores looking for the ultimate come-up may have waned in popularity since 2012, the online version of this activity is apparently thriving.

According to a new trend story from CNBC, interest in “reselling” platforms like Etsy-owned Depop and Poshmark has exploded in the years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. In an article that spends a frankly surprising amount of time focused on sellers receiving death threats before concluding that they’re “not the norm,” the network cites the usual belt-tightening ecommerce suspects – housebound individuals doing more of their shopping online coupled with inflation woes and recession fears – as the causes behind the uptick.

As for data, there’s a survey from Depop themselves, finding that 53% of respondents in the UK are more inclined to shop secondhand as living costs continue to rise. Additional research from Advance Market Analytics confirms the trend, citing not just increased demand for cheap clothes but the pressing need for a sustainable alternative to recycling clothing materials at its core.

The major popularity of “thrift haul” videos across social media platforms like YouTube and TikTok has also boosted the visibility of vintage clothes shopping and hunting for buried treasures. Teenage TikToker Jacklyn Wells scores millions of views on her thrift haul videos, only to get routinely mass-accused of greed for ratching up the Depop resell prices for her coolest finds and discoveries. Nonetheless, viral clips like Wells’ have helped to embed secondhand shopping apps more generally within online fashion culture. Fashion and beauty magazine Hunger now features a regular list of the hottest items on the re-sale market, with a focus on how to use them to recreate hot runway looks.

As with a lot of consumer and technology trends, the sudden surge of interest in second-hand clothing retailers was only partly organic. According to The Drum, ecommerce apps Vinted, eBay, and Depop have collectively spent around $120 million on advertising throughout the last few years, promoting the recent vintage shopping boom and helping to normalize second-hand shopping. This includes conventional advertising, of course, but also deals with online influencers to post content like “thrift haul” videos, along with shoutouts for where to track down the best finds.

Reselling platforms have naturally responded to the increase in visibility with new features (as well as a predictable hike in transaction fees). Poshmark recently introduced livestreamed “Posh Shows” during which sellers can host auctions or provide deeper insight into their inventory. Depop, meanwhile, has introduced a “Make Offer” option to fully integrate the bartering and negotiation process into the app, rather than forcing buyers and sellers to text or Direct Message one another elsewhere. (The platform formerly had a comments section on product pages, but shut this option down after finding that it led to arguments, and wasn’t particularly helpful in making purchase decisions.)

Now that it’s clear there’s money to be made in online thrift stores, larger and more established brands and retailers are also pushing their way into the space. H&M and Target have both partnered with online thrift store ThredUp on featured collections of previously-worn clothing. A new “curated” resale collection from Tommy Hilfiger – featuring minorly damaged items that were returned to its retail stores – was developed and promoted through a partnership with Depop, which has also teamed with Kellogg’s on a line of Pop-Tarts-inspired wear. J.Crew is even bringing back its classic ‘80s Rollneck Sweater in a nod to the renewed interest in all things vintage.

Still, with any surge of popularity and visibility, there must also come an accompanying backlash. In a sharp editorial this week for Arizona University’s Daily Wildcat, thrift shopping enthusiast Luke Lawson makes the case that sites like Depop are “gentrifying fashion,” stripping communities of local thrift stores that provide a valuable public service, particularly for members of low-income communities. As well, UK tabloids are routinely filled with secondhand shopping horror stories these days, another evidence point as to their increased visibility among British consumers specifically, not to mention the general dangers of buying personal items from strangers you met over the internet.

How to Startup: Mission Acquisition

Spencer Rascoff

Spencer Rascoff serves as executive chairman of dot.LA. He is an entrepreneur and company leader who co-founded Zillow, Hotwire, dot.LA, Pacaso and Supernova, and who served as Zillow's CEO for a decade. During Spencer's time as CEO, Zillow won dozens of "best places to work" awards as it grew to over 4,500 employees, $3 billion in revenue, and $10 billion in market capitalization. Prior to Zillow, Spencer co-founded and was VP Corporate Development of Hotwire, which was sold to Expedia for $685 million in 2003. Through his startup studio and venture capital firm, 75 & Sunny, Spencer is an active angel investor in over 100 companies and is incubating several more.

How to Startup: Mission Acquisition

Numbers don’t lie, but often they don’t tell the whole story. If you look at the facts and figures alone, launching a startup seems like a daunting enterprise. It seems like a miracle anyone makes it out the other side.

  • 90% of startups around the world fail.
  • On average, it takes startups 2-3 years to turn a profit. (Venture funded startups take far longer.)
  • Post-seed round, fewer than 10% of startups go on to successfully raise a Series A investment.
  • Less than 1% of startups go public.
  • A startup only has a .00006% chance of becoming a unicorn.


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From The Vault: VC Legend Bill Gurley On Startups, Venture Capital and Scaling

Spencer Rascoff

Spencer Rascoff serves as executive chairman of dot.LA. He is an entrepreneur and company leader who co-founded Zillow, Hotwire, dot.LA, Pacaso and Supernova, and who served as Zillow's CEO for a decade. During Spencer's time as CEO, Zillow won dozens of "best places to work" awards as it grew to over 4,500 employees, $3 billion in revenue, and $10 billion in market capitalization. Prior to Zillow, Spencer co-founded and was VP Corporate Development of Hotwire, which was sold to Expedia for $685 million in 2003. Through his startup studio and venture capital firm, 75 & Sunny, Spencer is an active angel investor in over 100 companies and is incubating several more.

Bill Gurley in a blue suit
Bill Gurley

This interview was originally published on December of 2020, and was recorded at the inaugural dot.LA Summit held October 27th & 28th.

One of my longtime favorite episodes of Office Hours was a few years ago when famed venture capitalist Bill Gurley and I talked about marketplace-based companies, how work-from-home will continue to accelerate business opportunities and his thoughts on big tech and antitrust.

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