When Tracking Gadgets Glean Too Much

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

January 25, 2016

A scary phrase from the past, that “Big Brother is watching you”, can now be amended with all the personal information that is available on not only communicating platforms such as smart devices and the Internet, but also on monitoring gizmos. In our constant quest for simplicity, we may be jeopardizing our privacy. A recent article appearing on Vice’s Motherboard explores the subject in depth. As someone who works out five or six times a week, and who coveted a partner’s fitness monitor, based on this article I will rethink my obsession with this type of technology!

With the convenience and usefulness of these biometric information gadgets, streams of otherwise private information are now available in the ether because if you can track your movements, so can others. Thus furtive liaisons, such as cheating on a spouse, or late night cavorting which might be monitored by a boss, are all there to be hoovered up by a nosy third party, or more voracious and avaricious types such as data brokers or online advertisers, who aim to enrich themselves at the expense of your personal information.

With the proliferation of wearables (240 million are expected to be sold this year), the ad vultures have fertile ground to plow, adding to their other means of gleaning an individual’s data – only now they will have more detailed data about a person and their habits. Things such as how much body fat you have, when you have sex, how much sleep you get, and all sorts of physiological data are thrown in to the mix thanks to these trendy, wearable storehouses of information. Michelle De Mooy, a health privacy expert notes that,

Whenever there’s information that you’re collecting about yourself and you’re quantifying, there’s a very good chance that it will end up in a profile of you.

What is worrisome to politicians and security experts is that the ultimate uses for this new biometric information are limitless and unpredictable. As Jeffrey Chester, Executive Director of the Center for Digital Democracy, says,

Biometric data is perhaps the last ‘missing link’ of personal information collected today. The next great financial windfall for the digital data industry will be our health information, gathered thru wearables, swallowable pills and an ever-present Internet of Things. Pharma companies, hospitals and advertisers see huge profits in our health information.

A security leak from your FitBit or other device could have massive implications, as medical information is 10 times more valuable than your credit card number, according to sources in the know. Who would like to get their hands on this treasure-trove of information besides the obvious advertisers? Insurance companies would surely be in line to learn about your personal habits, activity, and your heartbeat, and the aforementioned advertisers could custom-tailor their ads if they had more stats for ammo. Think about what fitful sleep patterns dripped from your FitBit might mean to advertisers of sleep products! Delving more deeply, and extrapolating about stress –related behavior, an advertiser might deduce that you may be having marital or work-related problems.

Those who benefit from the data might not necessarily be as benign as insurance companies and advertisers. Imagine for a moment how a burglar might profit from knowing your movements and sleep patterns. How about a lawyer seeking alternative theories about an auto accident by referring to perhaps a lack of sleep the night before the incident? Don’t these gadgets have privacy protection? The answer is maybe – at first – until a sweet offer for it appears. Not only that, but there are various ways the data can leak out (accidentally or not,) and it’s not very hard to tie the information back to you, even with anonymizing software. Note: if there may soon be backdoors for encrypted communications, do you really think that a personal biometric device will be secure?

To illustrate further Chester opines,

Our connected health data isn’t secure or privacy protected. The US is one of the only countries that doesn’t have a comprehensive privacy law, such as what protects people living in the EU. The explosion of health data coming from wearables and other devices that is (sic) used for marketing doesn’t have any consumer safeguards.”

In other words, everything is on the table, and up for grabs.

What is certain in this day and age is that real privacy is hard enough to protect without one adding to the mountains of data out there by wearing a potentially porous health gadget on your person. But, as always, caveat emptor – let the buyer beware. Don’t say you weren’t forewarned!

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