Vermont Public is independent, community-supported media, serving Vermont with trusted, relevant and essential information. We share stories that bring people together, from every corner of our region. New to Vermont Public? Start here.

© 2024 Vermont Public | 365 Troy Ave. Colchester, VT 05446

Public Files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact or call 802-655-9451.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Who Could Be Watching You Watching Your Figure? Your Boss

Mobile apps and devices track a user's health statistics. But those data are sometimes sold and can end up in the hands of employers and insurance companies.
Mobile apps and devices track a user's health statistics. But those data are sometimes sold and can end up in the hands of employers and insurance companies.

Those of us trying to lose some pounds after overindulging this holiday season can get help from a slew of smartphone apps that count steps climbed and calories burned. Self-tracking has also become a way for companies to make money using your fitness data. And some experts worry that the data collected could be used against users in the long run.

At a recent Quantified Self Meetup in downtown San Francisco, technology lovers are testing homemade do-it-yourself devices on people eager to measure their mind and body.

Charles Wong straps a belt to me that vibrates when I slouch. Jonathan Toomim slaps a Velcro headband on me, to measure my concentration according to prefrontal cortex activity. Heather Heine pokes my finger for a blood test.

According to Forrester Research, about 3 percent of online shoppers say they already use a self-tracking device, and 17 percent express interest in one well-known brand.

Data For Profit

Tim Chang, a venture capitalist with the Mayfield Fund, is one of the money guys behind self-tracking. Chang raised $9 million for a new kind of tracker that he promises is "the world's first very accurate heart rate monitor on just a wrist watch — no chest strap, no other device."

Sensors and Bluetooth technologies have become so cheap and sophisticated, they can record more than steps taken and calories burned.

The startup Basis plans to make money by selling the heart watch. But if the company turns a big profit, Chang says, it will be from selling the data aggregated on a smartphone app and analyzing it for you, the user.

"People aren't really interested in raw data," Chang says. "If I just gave you your heart rate data, you wouldn't know how to interpret it. In fact, it might confuse you, or it might scare you and say, 'What is the spike? Why is it low? Why is it high?' "

Facebook and Google collect data on users and get advertisers to pay for access to those users. By contrast, Chang's first self-tracking company, Lumos Labs, sells data directly to hundreds of thousands of its own users. This paid subscriber base has more than doubled every year since 2007.

"The beauty of subscription business models, if you can retain your users, is they can be naturally very profitable," Chang says.

Employers Are Watching

Big data raise big privacy issues.

Two years ago, some users of a leading self-tracking brand, Fitbit, were logging their sexual activity as exercise and found the sex logs somehow popping up on Google searches.

"We've now made those privacy settings more prominent so that people are more aware of what the privacy setting are," says Woody Scal, Fitbit's chief revenue officer. "I think the area of privacy is an area that many companies like ours have learned a lot over the past couple of years."

Fitbit is entering a brave new world in privacy as it starts selling devices and data to a new market: employers. Scal says Fitbit is attempting to grow through corporate wellness programs.

"Companies can see how many of the devices they've given out have actually been activated. How many are being used? How is it actually changing employee behavior?" Scal says.

Scal explains bosses typically don't get reports on an individual employee. They get aggregated data, and the worker must consent first.

One of Fitbit's competitors, BodyMedia, says it is working with insurance companies to get its self-trackers into more workplaces. Scal says Fitbit is running an experiment with one insurer, to see if employees who use the devices go to the doctor less. This, he says, "would be the holy grail for a product like this."

"If we could make a direct connection to reduction in medical care costs, then I think the floodgates would be open," Scal says.

The Privacy Problem

"People should be asking themselves what happens with this data, what type of inferences can be drawn from this data," says Marc Goodman, chairman of Policy, Law and Ethics at technology research hub Singularity University.

Goodman says users typically don't read disclosures and warns that while health and fitness devices are personal tools for now, health insurers in the future could use incentives to pressure people to wear these devices.

"So that they could get a better perspective on how healthy or unhealthy you are. If your self-tracking health device shows that you lead a sedentary lifestyle, then maybe you will pay more for insurance," Goodman says.

He says consumers should be careful about letting any company track health data that can be used against them.

Copyright 2021 KQED. To see more, visit KQED.

Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.
Latest Stories