By Jerry Mooney
One of the most popular gifts this last Christmas was the Fitbit. This device and the similar competitors are found more and more on the wrists of health conscious individuals. Although the idea of increasing our accountability to our activity level has merit, it provides a whole new world of data accumulation and digital monitoring. The question then becomes, how do we balance privacy versus health?
Advocates for more data point out that health informatics provide patients with better health services. Fitbits are simply the newest form of how we can collect data about our health. And their applications are more far-reaching than a bedridden patient in a hospital room. When wearing the Fitbit, a person’s steps are obviously recorded, no surprise. Also, though, their heart rate, distance traveled, when they took the steps and even when the person was awake or asleep. No big deal, right? Santa Claus has known most of this stuff forever. This data is then synced to a device, which stores the data. Then the information can be used to see trends and tendencies.
One heart breaking example is this Tweet that went viral. This poor guy not only got his heart broken, but his Fitbit recorded the exact moment it happened.
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">📷 new-aesthetic: Top: Fitbit captures the exact moment of devastating heartbreak His boyfriend of around... <a href="https://t.co/dW3Po4B8rk">https://t.co/dW3Po4B8rk</a></p>— Ed Hammerton (@never_online01) <a href="https://twitter.com/never_online01/status/699239294100250624">February 15, 2016</a></blockquote>
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In a more heart warming story, a couple got an anomalous diagnosis from the wife’s Fitbit. The husband noticed that his wife’s resting heart rate was higher than it should be. He was concerned that she might have tachycardia or arrhythmia. He discovered that she experiencing a physical condition, however, she was beating for two. Yes, the Fitbit revealed that his wife was pregnant before any test or doctor. Surprise!
It doesn’t appear at this point like there is an overly sensitive situation here, however, wearers of these devices are creating a trackable footprint about their activities, and their bodies. This footprint is could easily be used to profile a person.
It seems silly to think that a hacker might be interested in when your heart rate was spiking, but when this data is stored and then predictive analytics are applied, a person becomes intimately profiled. This profile, when coupled with predictive analytics can not only display what you do, but what you will probably do.
Is this a precursor to ‘future crime’? Predicting all of the implications of new technology is always fraught with folly. People are typically wrong and tend to skew towards the paranoid. It feels like a giant leap to think that wearable fitness trackers will lead to privacy invasions, but we must be vigilant about these enormous amounts of data that we are creating. This new data source does demand that we begin to take a closer look at how we value privacy in this new world of live, streaming personal information.
Feature photo courtesy of Flickr, available under aCreative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license
Jerry Mooney is co-founder and managing editor of Zenruption and the author of History Yoghurt and the Moon. He studied at the University of Munich and Lewis and Clark College where he received his BA in International Affairs and West European Studies. He has taught Language and Communications at a small, private college recently and has owned various businesses, including an investment company that made him a millionaire before the age of 40. Jerry is committed to raising the floor of our world economically and zenrupting the forces that block social and economic justice. He can also be found on Twitter @JerryMooney