Fitness Trackers’ Ethical Use of Data

Fitness trackers have been flourishing in recent years. As our society continues to emphasize health and fitness, an increasing number of people seek to monitor their health and fitness data with such trackers. According to the National Institute of Health, 21% of Americans wear fitness trackers daily,  which amounts to about 70 million people in the United States. These devices offer numerous benefits, including enhanced personal health insights and data-driven healthcare and fitness decisions. However, within the context of collecting all this data, ethical concerns have arisen regarding data privacy and usage.

Ethical Concerns 

Three primary ethical concerns with fitness trackers are data storage, security, and privacy.

  1. Informed Consent: Users of fitness trackers may not fully understand how their data is collected, stored, and used. Without clear and informed consent, individuals may unknowingly share sensitive health information, potentially leading to a breach of their privacy.
  2. Data Security: Fitness trackers collect a wide range of personal health data, including heart rate, sleep patterns, and physical activity. If this data is not adequately protected, it can be vulnerable to data breaches, identity theft, or misuse.
  3. Data Sharing: Many fitness tracker companies have partnerships or data-sharing agreements with third-party organizations, such as insurers or advertisers. Users may not be aware of these arrangements or the extent to which their data is shared, raising questions about data ownership and control.

How Companies are Adjusting to These Ethical Concerns

The New York Times recently selected Apple Watch, Fitbit, and Whoop as the best fitness trackers. So, what actions do these companies take to address these ethical concerns? To begin with, all three companies strive to comply with relevant privacy and data protection regulations, such as GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) and HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), depending on the jurisdiction and use case. Concerning the three primary ethical concerns, these companies are taking the following steps:

1. Transparency and Informed Consent

  • Apple Watch: Apple emphasizes transparency in its data collection and usage practices. Users are provided with clear and concise explanations of how their data is used and can customize data-sharing settings during setup. Apple also allows users to view and download their health data, providing a high degree of control.
  • Fitbit: Fitbit provides detailed privacy policies and terms of use that users must agree to before using the device. They offer explicit consent options for sharing data with third parties and allow users to control which data is shared.
  • Whoop: Whoop is explicit about data collection and usage in its terms of service and privacy policy. Users are required to agree to these terms before using the device. Whoop focuses on individual data ownership and control.

2. Data Security

  • Apple Watch: Apple has a strong reputation for data security and encryption. User data on Apple Watch is stored securely, and the company has implemented features like biometric authentication (e.g., Touch ID or Face ID) to protect access to the device and the data it contains.
  • Fitbit: Fitbit has implemented robust security measures to safeguard user data. It uses encryption and authentication protocols to protect data in transit and at rest.
  • Whoop: Whoop takes data security seriously and employs encryption and other security measures to protect user data from unauthorized access.

3. Data Sharing and Third-Party Partnerships

  • Apple Watch: Apple has control over its ecosystem, which includes the Apple Health app. The company emphasizes user privacy and limits data sharing with third parties. This offers users the ability to review and manage data-sharing permissions.
  • Fitbit: Fitbit allows users to control which data is shared with third-party apps and services. They provide transparency about partnerships and data-sharing practices.
  • Whoop: Whoop has partnerships with professional sports teams and organizations. However, they are clear about the purpose of these partnerships and how data is used. Users have the option to opt out of data sharing.

What Can Data Scientists Do? 

Data storage, security, and privacy are common ethical concerns regardless of the industry. Here are some actions data scientists can take to address these concerns:

  1. Prioritize robust encryption techniques to secure data in transit and at rest, ensuring that sensitive information is protected from unauthorized access.
  2. Prioritize fairness, transparency, and bias mitigation when building machine learning models to ensure that AI systems do not inadvertently perpetuate ethical concerns.
  3. Educate users and stakeholders about data privacy and security best practices, ensuring they are aware of how their data is used and the measures in place to protect it.





NewYork Times:


Columnist: Cinoon Bak