The Forgotten Risk of Fitness Trackers

Fitbit launched a new personal fitness tracker for employees and members of health care plans—what are the downsides?

FFitbit recently launched a new personal fitness tracker that you won’t find in any store. The Fitbit Inspire is aimed at the corporate market—companies that want to help their workers maintain a healthy lifestyle and health insurers who understand the bottom-line benefits of members who don’t get sick.

On the surface, it’s a win-win move for Fitbit and their customers. Yet despite the promise of health, wealth, and well-being that the Inspire and similar technologies promise, this could all too easily come at the expense of consumers who find their personal data being misused.

The new FitBit Inspire. Source: FitBit

The Inspire is part of a growing trend of businesses, insurance companies, and health care providers using personal health devices to track and monitor employees and members, and even to reward or penalize them based on their data. If this sounds creepy, it is. There are benefits users potentially get out of wearing personal fitness devices tied to an employer, insurer, or health care provider, but they may come at the expense of handing over control of your life to someone else.

This may be as seemingly benign as handing out or withholding workplace perks predicated on your personal fitness tracker results. But it can just as easily mean potentially losing your job, or paying hefty medical bills, all on the basis of what a wearable personal fitness tracker says about you.

Law enforcement could even use your data in criminal prosecutions by accessing your previous locations and physical state. And you don’t even want to think about how vulnerable you might become if your personal health data was hacked and used to derive information that you’d rather keep private. This is all the more concerning given that Fitbit was hacked back in 2016.

Despite these potential risks, the use of personal fitness trackers and other internet-connected wearables continues to grow, in part because consumers are easily seduced by the promise of new tech.

It’s increasingly important that consumers ask critical questions about the risks as well as the benefits of the technologies they are being encouraged to embrace.

In spite of how seductive these technologies can be, it’s more important than ever that developers learn how to think about what might go wrong with these products, so that potentially hidden risks are revealed and avoided. These are “orphan risks”—risks that don’t seem important or are easily overlooked but can come back to bite.

These risks could be as seemingly obvious as not being aware of emerging regulations or not being plugged into the changing landscape around tech governance. Other risks may be more subtle, such as the risk of users feeling threatened by how their data might be used against them.

Personal fitness trackers certainly have their fair share of orphan risks, and their beneficial and ethical use will ultimately depend on these risks being taken seriously by manufacturers and providers. It will also depend on consumers becoming increasingly savvy about the cons of these devices as well as the pros, as they balance possible benefits against potential downsides.

Yet many consumers seem happy to trust new tech like personal fitness trackers and leave the difficult questions to others. But this leaves end users wide open to being abused by manufacturers and providers. And, ironically for the businesses selling and promoting the use of these devices, trust from consumers can lead to its own orphan risk of public backlash if those users end up feeling exploited. These kinds of risks aren’t a one-way street.

This is where it’s good for manufacturers and providers to listen to and engage with their users early on—before it’s too late to change course. And it’s increasingly important that consumers ask critical questions about the risks as well as the benefits of the technologies they are being encouraged to embrace.

Of course, engaging openly and honestly with consumers comes with its own risks. Consumers may begin to see the reality beyond the hype surrounding the latest tech as they better understand its advantages and limitations. But as a manufacturer or provider, it’s far better to deal with potential pitfalls early on than to simply cross your corporate fingers and hope for the best.

My own work shows that creative media like science fiction films can be surprisingly effective in helping make sense of the opportunities and challenges associated with new technologies—as long as they’re accompanied by a trustworthy guide. The reality is there are remarkably few places for consumers to get trustworthy and relevant information on the benefits and risks of technologies that are increasingly affecting their lives. And this is a problem if the ultimate success of technologies like personal fitness trackers depends on informed users.

This brings us back to the Fitbit Inspire. As potential users are offered this device by employers, health insurance providers, and insurers, they need to know about the possible downsides as well as the benefits. How will their personal data be stored and used? Will they be tracked and held accountable for their movements? Will their employment, insurance, or health care depend on device-documented lifestyle choices? And what are the chances of data from their device being used in a court of law?

These and similar questions reflect potential risks that are easy to overlook but could have serious consequences if not addressed. They form part of an increasingly complex risk landscape that sits between the potential benefits of personal fitness trackers and whether benefits will be realized by manufacturers, users, and third parties alike.

The good news is that learning how to navigate this landscape could be a win-win for both Fitbit and their customers. Personal fitness trackers may, if used responsibly, increase wellness and help prevent illness. But unless manufacturers and providers get serious about these risks, and users become aware of them, it’s a technology that could easily do more harm than good.

If companies like Fitbit and their partners are serious about doing good with their technology, they need to dig deep into what it means to innovate responsibly, to develop and use technologies in the public interest, and to navigate an increasingly complex landscape around risk.

If they do, there’s every chance that the Inspire could live up to its name.

Author of Future Rising: A Journey from the Past to the Edge of Tomorrow, and Associate Dean in the ASU College of Global Futures

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