Fancy Devices May Track More Than Your Steps

Care to know who else is keeping an eye on all of your health-related activities?

They’re on the wish lists of just about everyone this Christmas, including your great-grandmother and your youngest child. Fitness trackers help us count our steps, get more sleep, eat better, and take our medications (if not our phone calls).

It’s amazing how far we’ve come since the pedometer.

Estimated sales for fitness trackers in 2016 alone were $102 million. But before you slap a shiny new device on your wrist going into 2017 — it’s worth understanding what you’re really signing up for with these products.

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A new study raises privacy and security risks, showing that advertisers and Big Pharma companies want consumers’ personal health data badly. And it’s so easy for them to get it.

Researchers at American University and at the Center for Digital Democracy, both based in Washington, D.C., found that a “weak and fragmented health-privacy regulatory system fails to provide adequate safeguards.” The report, “Health Wearable Devices in the Big Data Era: Ensuring Privacy, Security, and Consumer Protection,” looks at how much more data will be collected about consumers as the use of personal fitness trackers becomes more widespread — and the technology more sophisticated.

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“The extent and nature of data collection will be unprecedented,” the authors note. “Biosensors will routinely be able to capture not only an individual’s heart rate, body temperature, and movement, but also brain activity, moods, and emotions. These data can, in turn, be combined with personal information from other sources — including health-care providers and drug companies — raising such potential harms as discriminatory profiling, manipulative marketing, and security breaches.”

Related: Before You Buy Those Fitness Trackers

“The United States is on the eve of a major public debate over the future of its health care system,” the report further states. “The potential of personal digital devices to reduce health-care spending will likely play an important role,” as lawmakers deliberate the fate of the Affordable Care Act.

However, unless there are adequate regulatory safeguards in place, “consumers and patients could face serious risks to their privacy and security, and also be subjected to discrimination and other harms.”

Bottom line: Beware — and be smart.

The report from the Center for Digital Democracy shares ideas “for how government, industry, philanthropy, nonprofit organizations, and academic institutions can work together to develop a comprehensive approach to health privacy and consumer protection in the era of Big Data and the Internet of Things,” the group said in a statement on its website.

Their suggestions include:

  • 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.

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