Fitness Trackers – Running Towards Slavery
Fitness trackers are everywhere. From the joggers in the park to the guys and girls sweating it out in the gym, you definitely know someone who wears one – if you don't yourself. Since their unremarkable inception as mere pedometers, they have been gaining in functionality and popularity year on year. And according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), who poll hundreds of health and fitness professionals annually, ‘wearable tracking devices will be the most pervasive trend in exercise in 2017’.
You know the main brands. You know what they look like and what they measure. But do you know how the data they collect is being used, and for what? In this article, for the first time, I'll pull together the different strands – data collection, privacy, surveillance, and economic coercion – to give you the big picture, and show you where this trend is heading.
The statistics for this recent high-growth industry are certainly impressive, with over 100 companies producing wearable fitness devices, including wristbands (61% market share), smartwatches (45%) and other devices (17%). More than 78 million fitness wearables were sold worldwide in 2015, and by 2019 the total global market is expected to be worth more than $5 billion.
What's driving this massive upsurge in wearable fitness devices?
The most popular reason for wearing a tracker is to motivate you to move and work out more. Just wearing it serves as a visual reminder for yourself, and a statement to others, that you're working towards a fitness goal. Through the mobile app you can set individual goals and be reminded of them. Your progress is constantly and instantly available for your inspection.
So let's say you buy one of these gadgets. What does it track exactly?
Like the first pedometers, all wearable fitness devices measure motion. The most modern ones have a 3-axis accelerometer to track movement in every direction. Some also have a gyroscope to measure orientation and rotation. The time and duration of movement repetitions are recorded. Your exact location when you exercise is also monitored by GPS, either through the device itself or your mobile signal.
Some trackers also feature temperature and bio-impedance sensors which measure galvanic skin resistance, similar to basic lie detectors. The Fitbit Charge 2 goes further, using optical sensors to take your pulse. The duration of your sleep can also be logged, and to some degree how well you sleep can also be measured via wrist movements, although the accuracy is still sketchy. All the raw data that these sensors gather is then filtered through various algorithms and sent to an app, which can present it to you in a user-friendly interface.
Trackers can calculate for you how many calories you’ve burned during a workout, as long as you give it more individual data, like your age, gender, height, weight and maybe what you're eating.
What data the device can't collect itself, you have to input using the app on your mobile or the company's website. Fitness trackers themselves are part of the Internet of Things. All the data collected from your daily physical activity is transmitted via Bluetooth and wi-fi to ‘The Cloud’. This fluffy euphemism really means a bank of computers in an air-conditioned room somewhere, managed by, well, someone you don't know. A subcontractor, probably. More likely, it means rooms plural, many rooms, spread across the planet, each with their own staff, their own local data protection laws, and their own copy of how many steps you took this morning, and in which direction. If you were under the impression that your intimate physical data was only travelling from your wristband to the mobile in your pocket, you were mistaken. All your information, and that of an ever-growing number of your fellow citizens, is out there in virtual space.
But so what? No-one is interested in my data. No-one cares how much sleep I get, or how far I run. Right?
As we will see, there are some large and powerful groups interested in this data – and they're willing to go to some lengths to get it.
In order to collect continuous data, however, you need to keep using the thing. And here is one obvious problem with fitness trackers – despite the booming sales of these devices, the drop off in their use is also huge. According to research by Endeavour Partners in USA, one third of Americans who bought a fitness tracker stopped using it within six months, and of all American tracker owners, half no longer use them. The situation is similar in the UK, where a recent study showed that 40% of participants stopped using their tracker in the first six months. Astonishingly, after a year, 9 out of 10 people had stopped wearing them.
The unrelenting exhortations from trackers to hit your targets might be fine if you are a Type A over-achiever, but can be a source of frustration and depression if, like most people, you’re not. The tracker can become an ever-present reminder of what you have not achieved and a high-tech, self-imposed tyrant telling you what you should be doing.
Inability to reach those self-set or app-set goals may not be the only reason for the decline in usage. There are many complaints about the operation and effectiveness of these devices. The algorithms vary from one device to another and can give wildly different analyses of the same data. Some wrist bands have been recalled because of complaints about discomfort and allergic reactions. Battery life can be extremely low, sometimes as little as a few hours.
For all these reasons, it seems the fate of most fitness trackers is eventually to be discarded along with the rest of those New Year's resolutions.
This doesn't suit those who want to profit from fitness trackers and the data they collect, starting with the manufacturers.
Given that individuals can't be trusted to keep wearing their wearables of their own accord, it’s no wonder that the manufacturers have been eager to get on the corporate wellness gravy train. Industry leader Fitbit, which went public in 2015 to the tune of $4 billion, has been particularly busy. Among their many Fortune 500 clients are BP, Bank of America, Kimberley-Clark and Time Warner. IBM gave out more than 40,000 Fitbits to its employees over two years, and recently retail giant Target announced it would offer Fitbits to its 335,000 US employees. Barclays followed suit, offering subsidized devices to 75,000 employees.
What do the employers get out of it? For one thing, having fitter employees lowers the cost of their corporate health insurance. It could also reduce sick leave, and result in higher productivity, and thereby profitability. Of course there are other potential, less-discussed advantages for employers, particularly in blue-collar industries. That tracker can be a useful time and motion spy, sending precise information about location at any given time, exact period working, rest breaks taken etc. Even personal time off-work, including drinking alcohol, could be monitored as part of a corporate wellness program.
Companies do need to incentivise employees to wear the trackers. One incentive that has worked spectacularly for retailers is a basic bribe. More than one million customers have transmitted data from fitness trackers to Walgreen Co., in exchange for points that can be used like cash in the company’s stores and through its website for many products.
Realising where the market is going, Jawbone, makers of the popular 'UP' wristband, has released ‘UP for Groups’, a program that allows employers to buy their trackers in bulk for their staff. It’s estimated that by 2020 more than 75 million wearable trackers will be in the workplace, according to research firm Tractica.
In case you don’t feel like being tracked at work, consider that companies might forgo incentives altogether. Respected research firm Gartner estimates that by 2018, 2 million employees will be required to wear health and fitness tracking devices as a condition of employment. And that Big Brother future is only next year.
If your employer doesn't force you to join the ranks of the tracked, another big player might make you an offer you can't refuse.
The health insurance companies have been quick to realise the benefits to themselves and their shareholders in encouraging people to wear fitness trackers en masse. Last year, Oscar, a New York-based health insurance company, announced it would give all its customers Misfit trackers. Users would receive $1 each time they hit their daily step goal – up to an annual total of $240, received in the form of an Amazon gift card. Another company, United Healthcare, offers a health management app that connects to Fitbit devices, while John Hancock offered its customers Fitbits and the chance to reduce premiums by 15% annually for hitting daily targets. Hancock’s CEO told the New York Times that this business model could ‘re-invent the no-growth insurance industry.’
If you think the persuasive power of a small financial benefit is not enough to make a massive change, think again. According to a survey carried out in 2014 by PwC’s Health Research Institute, a full 68% of consumers would wear employer-provided trackers in exchange for cheaper insurance premiums.
And following right behind the insurance market is the healthcare industry. According to Orange Healthcare, 88% of physicians want patients to monitor their health parameters at home. A report by IDC Health Insights states that by 2018, 70% of healthcare organisations worldwide will be investing in consumer-facing technology. And CDW Healthcare says 'wearable technology could drop hospital costs by as much as 16% over the course of five years, while remote patient monitoring technologies could save the healthcare system $200 billion over the next 25 years,’ according to Time magazine online.
Towards the end of last year the UK Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, announced that very soon, data from fitness apps will “link directly into our own medical records” and that “by March next year NHS England are going to publish a library of approved apps in areas like mental health and chronic conditions like diabetes.”
The security of our existing medical data is far from perfect, even when it's in governmental hands. For example, according to the Health and Human Services' Office of Civil Rights in Washington DC, there were 253 health-care breaches across the United States in 2015 that affected 500 individuals or more, resulting in a combined loss of over 112 million records.
So directly linking confidential medical information to mobile apps could be a highly worrying development, depending on how secure they are.
Unfortunately, it seems the answer is – not very.
Smartphones do have a higher level of security than fitness trackers, yet they can be and are routinely hacked. As for hacking your tracker, "Getting the information is very simple," says Kevin Haley, director of product for cybersecurity firm Symantec's security response division, "they've been around for a while, and hackers already know how to do it".
The security aspect is pretty dire, but it turns out that privacy could be an even bigger problem. Your fitness device doesn’t even have to be hacked for your intimate data to end up in someone else’s hands.
A surprisingly basic privacy concern is that most fitness trackers emit a unique code at regular intervals, transmitted over Bluetooth, which could be captured and associated with a particular location and time. Open Effect, a Canadian not-for-profit group, produced an 84-page report which analysed privacy and security in eight different brands of wearable devices. Out of the eight, only the Apple Watch did not emit this identifying code.
And which third parties love to buy up troughs of data about people?
Marketers. Information is not only power – it is also money. According to the Financial Times, “general information about a person, such as their age, gender and [home] location is worth a mere $0.0005 per person, or $0.50 per 1,000 people". But the more useful the data is to marketers, the more valuable it becomes. For example, knowing that someone is diabetic, has high blood pressure, or has high cholesterol adds around $0.26 for each condition, and knowing that you're exercising to try and lose weight adds around $0.10. According to the Boston Consulting Group, the value extracted from European consumers' personal data in 2011 was €315 billion, and it'll grow to nearly €1 trillion per year by 2020. The danger here is that data you intend to collect for one purpose – fitness – could easily be used for something else, such as to target advertising specifically at you’.
Individually targeted advertising is big business these days, and multi-national retail companies have the money to buy huge amounts of data from data brokers in order to offer consumer-specific advertising, largely through the internet. That signal given off by your fitness tracker as you wander through a shopping centre will tell them which shops you visited and for how long. Add that to the cookies placed on your web browser, which track your pages visited and length of time on them, and your physical and virtual activities are pretty well covered.
The list of parties who are interested in your tracker data also certainly includes the intelligence services.
Let's hear from the CIA. In January 2014 Ira Hunt, then the CIA’s chief technology officer, said at a data conference in New York City that the agency, “likes these things (fitness trackers). What’s really most intriguing is that you can be 100% guaranteed to be identified by simply your gait – how you walk.”
We're vaguely aware, thanks to Edward Snowdon, Wikileaks and other whistle-blowers, that the insatiable appetite of Western intelligence agencies for collecting personal data about every last one of us is matched only by their ingenuity in building or negotiating backdoors to get it.
But where do they collect it from?
Much of the personal information required by government intelligence services is freely available through social media. Facebook is of course at the forefront, with over a billion members globally. Is it just a happy coincidence that all this data the governments want is being gladly (or thoughtlessly) collected in one place by a billion people?
Facebook was heavily over-funded soon after its launch, to the tune of $12 million. According to an article first published in The New Zealand Herald in 2009 ‘The money came from venture capital firm Accel Partners whose manager James Breyer was formerly chairman of the National Venture Capital Association, and served on the board with Gilman Louie, CEO of In-Q-Tel, a venture capital firm established by the Central Intelligence Agency in 1999. One of the company’s key areas of expertise is in “data mining technologies”. Breyer also served on the board of R&D firm BBN Technologies, which was one of those companies responsible for the rise of the internet. Dr Anita Jones joined the firm, which included Gilman Louie. She had also served on the In-Q-Tel’s board, and had been director of Defence Research and Engineering for the US Department of Defence. She was also an adviser to the Secretary of Defence and overseeing the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is responsible for high-tech, high-end development.’
DARPA ran the Information Awareness Office, which had the stated mission of achieving Total Information Awareness (TIA). In other words, "to gather as much information as possible about everyone, in a centralised location, for easy perusal by the United States government, including (though not limited to) internet activity, credit card purchase histories, airline ticket purchases, car rentals, medical records, educational transcripts, driver’s licenses, utility bills, tax returns, and any other available data.”
So your social activity, personal information, cultural and political preferences, and network of friends is easily gained through data mining social media. Snooping on smartphones adds your time and location plus of course the content of your text and voice messages. Now fitness trackers put the missing piece in place via precise physical data, and with forthcoming integration into medical records, the intelligence services will have a complete picture.
What is likely to happen soon? According to a report from researchers at American University and the Center for Digital Democracy in Washington, wearable fitness devices raise serious concerns. “Experts envision a not-too-distant future in which health and wellness devices, along with an array of next-generation Internet-connected sensors, will be fully integrated into everyday experiences. The flow of user-generated and biologically derived information that these devices track will be fed through a vast Big-Data network composed of hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, consumer product goods and services companies, drugstores, and many other players. Many of the harms associated with the collection and processing of such data, moreover, are likely to affect disproportionately the most vulnerable people in our society, including the sickest, the poorest, and those with the least education.”
With so many powerful entities having a vested interest in the widespread uptake of these trackers, the drop-off rate in usage becomes an unacceptable obstacle.
What if you couldn't take it off?
Two years ago NewDealDesign, the design consultancy behind Fitbit, created Project Underskin. It’s a smart digital tattoo which would be implanted in your hand and interact with everything you touch. Running off the body’s electro-chemical energy, it would be able not only to monitor your physiological vital signs, but do numerous other useful things such as to unlock doors, or exchange information with a handshake. NewDealDesign is confident that they could actually build Underskin within the next five years, given the state of current electronics research. A different approach has already been field tested by a firm in Sweden. At Epicenter, some employees have volunteered to have an RFID (radio frequency identification) chip implanted in their hands. This device can open locked doors, operate the photocopier, and make payments in the company café.
The compulsory digital implant looks like the not-so-futuristic final solution for complete control of a population. It could easily contain all your personal information and make payments from your digital account in a cashless society. And should you transgress against the powers in charge, it could just as easily be de-activated, making you a non-person, unable to pay for anything or even get into your own house.
This dystopian future may seem a long way from counting steps with your wristband, but all the elements are already in place. Psychologically we are already conditioned into accepting it. We have become so dependent on the ubiquitous mobile devices we carry around, and the seamless flow of information through the internet, that we cannot imagine life without them.
As Sherry Turkle put it in her thought-provoking paper on mobile phones back in 2006, the device is “Always on/Always on you”. She called it the condition of the “tethered self” as we cannot separate our identity from the mobile electronic devices we continuously carry. Soon we may have no choice in being tethered physically as well as psychologically. Sartre said “You are free – choose.” Ironically it seems we are choosing to become slaves through our addiction to these devices. We're now running towards that future, 10,000 steps at a time.
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— PersonalTrainers LDN (@PTdotLondon) March 27, 2017
 Tractica, “Wearable Devices for Enterprise and Industrial Markets,” 2Q 2015.
 Gartner press release, “Gartner Reveals Top Predictions for IT Organizations and Users for 2016 and Beyond,” October 6, 2015. http://www.gartner.com/newsroom/id/3143718