Your wearable-tracked health data is for sale, according to a new study
If you sport a Fitbit or Apple Watch on the regular, you probably love the health insights you get from your wearable. You know how much you move, how well you sleep and have likely started tracking patterns and trends as soon as you have enough time logged.
But you’re not alone. There are tons of advertisers and big pharma companies interested in your personal health data almost as much as you are — and, according to researchers, they can get it almost as easily as you can.
An extensive new report published by the Center for Digital Democracy and American University tackles the complicated issue of health wearables and big data systems from every angle. It comes to a troubling conclusion: there are almost no privacy safeguards in place for consumer health data, and multiple industries are ready and willing to mine the system for profit.
According to the report, there are benefits of a connected-health system, like personalized insurance policies and improved emergency services. Wearable makers Apple and Fitbit have partnered with healthcare companies (Aetna and Cigna, respectively) in an effort to collect user data for just that reason.
But the good of a connected-health system could be marred by its potential for abuse by unscrupulous data practices.
“Many of these devices [wearables] are already being integrated into a growing Big Data digital health and marketing ecosystem, which is focused on gathering and monetizing personal health data in order to influence consumer behavior,” reads the report.
If that ecosystem is allowed to grow and evolve with no safeguards for privacy, it claims “the extent and nature of data collection will be unprecedented.”
Ads will only get creepier
There are already digital marketing techniques in practice that could become increasingly creepier with your personal health data up for grabs. Just think about how you might scroll through your Facebook feed and see a sponsored post for the store around the block — location-based ads are here now. With personal health data at advertisers’ fingertips, the level of marketing manipulation only grows.
Other techniques outlined include “condition targeting,” “look-alike modeling,” “scoring” and, most troublingly, the real-time buying and selling of individual consumer data.
According to the report:
Consumer data have become so valuable that, rather than selling that information to data brokers or ad networks, wearable companies will either be part of large digital marketing operations, or create their own ad networks and buy data themselves from marketing clouds to enhance consumer profiles in order to engage in targeted marketing.
Time for new standards
To combat consumer data abuse, the researchers offer suggestions for authorities to make the connected-health system more secure. There’s a track-record for success, too: along with the researchers’ work here, they were involved with the campaign that led to the passage of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) back in the late 1990s.
In the report’s release announcement, its authors stressed the importance of proactive actions to protect consumer health data.
“The connected-health system is still in an early, fluid stage of development,” co-author and American University communications professor Kathryn C. Montgomery said. “There is an urgent need to build meaningful, effective and enforceable safeguards into its foundation.”
Executive Director of the Center for Digital Democracy and co-author Jeff Chester also hopes to see policy change to protect consumers.
“Americans now face a growing loss of their most sensitive information, as their health data are collected and analyzed on a continuous basis, combined with information about their finances, ethnicity, location, and online and off-line behaviors. Policy makers must act decisively to protect consumers in today’s Big Data era,” he said.
They call for collaborative efforts to develop a comprehensive approach to health privacy and consumer protection, using:
- Clear, enforceable standards for both the collection and use of information;
- Formal processes for assessing the benefits and risks of data use; and
- Stronger regulation of direct-to-consumer marketing by pharmaceutical companies.
Zibivi reached out to both Apple and Fitbit for comment on their current privacy policies for consumer health data. The story will be updated upon receiving response.
For now, you can assume the data your wearable collects isn’t just between you and your app. That might not bother you for now — but as the devices and the connected-health system evolve, more and more of your private life might be up for grabs.