Seemingly unimportant fitness tracker data enables intimate insights


Many people fail to recognise the sensitivity of the data collected by fitness tracking devices, focusing instead on the messages and photographs collected by mobile phone apps and social media. Increasingly, however, researchers are finding that the data collected by these trackers - seemingly benign information such as steps taken and heart rate - can be highly revealing of such intimate information as sexual dysfunction. In one Swedish study in 2015, researchers found a correlation between low resting heart rates and the propensity for violence - a connection that needs to be confirmed. The fact that other such correlations and insights might develop in future has complicated implications for apps that allow this type of data to be shared with friends and employers. One study that displayed a person's heart rate alongside their messages sought to identify the associations people have about this information. 

In the US in particular these apps are becoming part of employer "wellness" programmes, with little clarity about how the data will be used in future. Employees do not always feel free to opt out, as they are often charged more for health insurance coverage, and even when they do companies may provide other ways to collect the same information - for example, MIT researchers are able to detect heart and breathing rates with 99% accuracy from reflections of wifi signals off the body. Today's seemingly useless data may be the source of important insights in years to come.

Writer: Elizabeth Weingarten
Publication: Slate


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