Wearables: Are we handing more tools to Big Brother?

Most of us would love a break on our health insurance. We would generally appreciate the convenience of seeing ads for things we're actually interested in buying, instead of irrelevant "clutter." A lot of us would like someone, or something, else keeping track of how effective our workouts are.

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Most of us would love a break on our health insurance. We would generally appreciate the convenience of seeing ads for things we're actually interested in buying, instead of irrelevant "clutter." A lot of us would like someone, or something, else keeping track of how effective our workouts are.

All that and more is available in a web-connected world. But those benefits come at a price -- personal information. In the case of health insurance, it means handing over some of the most intimate details of our lives, and lifestyles, in exchange for a couple hundred bucks a year.

But it is the kind of deal that, apparently, millions of us are willing to make. We have been carrying smartphones with GPS tracking abilities for nearly a decade now. We carry "loyalty" cards that allow retailers to track our purchases and sell or trade that information to data brokers.

Loyalty cards are a key part of the health insurance discount. The Boston Globe reported last month that Harvard Pilgrim, one of New England's major health insurers, had launched a program that paid its workers $20 a month to shop -- and then presumably eat -- healthy.

To get the cash, employees have to agree to have their, "grocery purchases ... tracked electronically when participants scan loyalty cards at the checkout counters," of several grocery chains. The company is looking to expand that program to the 1.2 million people it insures through 20,000 employers.

And now, we are snapping up "wearables" by the millions. There are at least 55 companies pitching devices, generally worn like a wrist watch, that monitor things like the type and intensity of a user's activity. Interest in the technology has reportedly generated $50 billion in investments.

"There are many different types," said Rebecca Herold, CEO of The Privacy Professor, "and more are released to the market every week, or some weeks it seems daily."

Wearables that function as "fitness trackers" have, not surprisingly, been incorporated into the modern wellness program. Companies like BP and Autodesk are offering lower insurance premiums to workers who prove they are more active through the use of the data generated from trackers.

These devices track much more than steps, however. They can tell if the user is biking or running, and can calculate distances traveled and calories burned. That, of course, means "connected" devices know a user's location and how he or she got there -- on foot, by bicycle or in a vehicle. The devices also capture information about sleep patterns, calories, blood pressure, heart rate and other data that most of us consider is between our doctors and us.

This, according Google cofounder Larry Page, is a very good thing. Page is among those who believe that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which is aimed at protecting patient privacy through limits on the sharing of Electronic Health Records (EHR), ought to be revoked or at least drastically reformed.

In a recent interview, he said if medical records were widely accessible in an online database, "I imagine that would save 10,000 lives in the first year."

But Deborah Peel, executive director of Patient Privacy Rights, told the Washington Post recently that fitness-tracking devices are "a privacy nightmare."

In a CSPAN interview earlier this year, Peel said more than 4 million businesses can access health records -- ranging from employers to government agencies, insurance companies, billing firms, pharmaceutical companies, pharmaceutical benefit managers, marketing firms and data miners.

"This is a massive violation of our right to keep sensitive information private," she said, adding that, "any kind of mental health diagnosis can ruin your life."

Pam Dixon, founder and executive director of the World Privacy Forum (WPF), agrees. She is one of numerous privacy advocates who point out that most fitness trackers are currently exempt from any regulation -- they are not covered by HIPAA since they are consumer devices that have not been furnished or prescribed by a health-care provider.

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