Want a Free Amazon Halo? Just Hand Over Your Data to This Insurance Company

Life insurer John Hancock says it will use data from Amazon’s new wearable to track plan holders

Amazon Halo and Amazon Halo Band. Photo: Business Wire

Yesterday, Amazon unveiled a new health and fitness tracking wristband called Halo, along with a subscription service and app, to rival existing wearables like the Apple Watch and Fitbit.

The $100 gadget comes with new features beyond what existing consumer health devices already offer: one that measures your percentage of body fat and another that analyzes your emotional state by listening to the tone of your voice. Like other wearable trackers, it also monitors physical activity, heart rate, and sleep phases.

One of the oldest and largest North American life insurers, John Hancock, is partnering with Amazon to offer its members a free Amazon Halo device and a three-year membership, which typically costs $3.99 a month. In exchange, members will have to hand over their data to their insurer, which will use it to award discounts on premiums and other rewards.

Other insurers could follow Hancock’s lead. Insurance companies are increasingly turning to tracking apps to monitor policyholders more closely, raising concerns over privacy, accuracy, and even discrimination.

In 2018, John Hancock announced it was transitioning its business model to only sell these so-called interactive policies, which allow plan holders to share data from smartphone apps and wearable devices.

“Consumers know that companies have a ton of data about them these days.”

The company has an existing app that integrates with the Apple Watch, Fitbit, and now Amazon Halo. Policyholders can earn points for doing things like exercising, buying healthy foods, and seeing their doctor. Those points accumulate and determine someone’s status level, which allows them to get discounts on their premiums and choose their own rewards, like gift cards. Brooks Tingle, president and CEO of John Hancock Insurance, tells OneZero that the company’s “most engaged” participants earn a 25% reduction on their life insurance premiums. People can choose not to share their data, but they don’t get the same perks.

“Consumers know that companies have a ton of data about them these days,” Tingle says. “We are very clear about how we’ll use the data and how we won’t use the data. Customers really like that idea of ‘Hey, you’re giving me something in return for sharing data.’”

Insurance companies have been experimenting with wearable tech for a few years — mostly in pilot programs — but Amazon Halo potentially offers more data to insurers than previous wearables.

Tingle says his company is only interested in members’ sleep habits, heart rate, and activity data. It won’t be using voice tone or body fat information generated by Amazon Halo to calculate points. That’s not to say other insurers won’t take advantage of that data though.

Insurance companies benefit from having more healthy members, and by offering wearables and apps to members, they’re betting that people will make healthier choices if they know they’re being monitored. Plus, Tingle argues, connecting fitness trackers to a program like John Hancock’s can incentivize users to stick with their wearables. “Once people start,” he says, “they don’t drop off like you might see them drop off in other settings. We’ve been very pleased with the results.”

The Amazon Halo-John Hancock partnership is part of a trend of insurance companies seeking personal data to motivate people to make healthier choices. Last year, Fitbit teamed up with UnitedHealthcare, the biggest health insurer in the United States, to offer its devices to some plan holders. Under the program, people with high-deductible health plans can earn more than $1,000 per year for out-of-pocket health care expenses by meeting a daily walking goal.

Another health insurer, New York-based Oscar, offers an app to plan holders that syncs to Apple Health, Google Fit, and other activity-tracking apps. Users can earn $1 a day if they meet their daily step goal and then cash out the money for an Amazon gift card. Aetna and Humana have also launched apps that offer rewards in exchange for meeting health goals.

While these initiatives and similar employer wellness programs promise enticing benefits to participants, there’s also a dark side to health tracking tied to rewards and insurance premiums.

“Your insurer may even be able to figure out when you’re having sex.”

“I think there can be a real element of coercion to participate in insurance companies’ wellness programs because participation can lower premium costs or give you access to other services that usually cost money,” says Kellie Owens, PhD, a sociologist and health researcher at Data & Society, an independent nonprofit research organization in New York City.

While a nudge from a wearable may be the boost some people need to get their daily exercise, a subset of people get so caught up in monitoring their activity that they become obsessive, anxious, or depressed. The effects of regularly using a body fat scanner and voice tone analyzer are unknown, but these features could have similarly negative effects.

There are also privacy, security, and accuracy concerns. As Lisa Carver, PhD, an assistant professor in kinesiology and health Queen’s University in Canada, pointed out in 2018, “your insurer may even be able to figure out when you’re having sex.” And while insurers pledge to keep your data safe, data breaches at health insurance companies are on the rise.

Owens says there are questions about the accuracy of wearables, too. One of the risks of using information from health trackers to adjust insurance premiums or offer rewards is that the data could be incorrect or misleading.

Amazon says Halo uses “multiple advanced sensors” to provide “highly accurate information,” but Halo isn’t a medical device. Unlike the Apple Watch and some other devices, Halo’s functions haven’t been cleared by the Food and Drug Administration. While its body scan feature may very well be a better indicator of health than a simple calculation of a person’s body mass index, a measurement that many scientists say is flawed, Amazon hasn’t released data on how well it works. (The company says it may do so in the future though.)

As for its tone feature, voice analysis for mood detection isn’t new, but relying on it as a health indicator could be fraught since emotional expression can differ among men and women and across cultures.

Halo and other devices may also come with baked-in bias. For instance, there’s evidence that heart rate monitors don’t work as well in people of color. And in Amazon’s own description of Halo, the company notes that its emotional tone feature currently works best for American English speakers.

“I just wonder what that means for people speaking other languages or English with an accent, particularly if those folks are being incentivized to send that data to insurance wellness programs in some way,” Owens says. “Would they be less likely to receive financial or health benefits that other members are eligible for?”

If more insurers adopt these types of programs that use tracking apps and wearables, such incentives could potentially create economic inequities. People who don’t want to share data from activity trackers with their insurers — or those without the means to develop healthier habits — could be forced to pay more for insurance. For now, these insurance programs are optional, but it’s not hard to imagine them becoming the norm in the future.

Former staff writer at Medium, where I covered biotech, genetics, and Covid-19 for OneZero, Future Human, Elemental, and the Coronavirus Blog.

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