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Wearables: Are we handing more tools to Big Brother?

Taylor Armerding | July 15, 2014
Most of us would love a break on our health insurance. We would generally appreciate the convenience of seeing ads for things we're actually interested in buying, instead of irrelevant "clutter." A lot of us would like someone, or something, else keeping track of how effective our workouts are.

Most of us would love a break on our health insurance. We would generally appreciate the convenience of seeing ads for things we're actually interested in buying, instead of irrelevant "clutter." A lot of us would like someone, or something, else keeping track of how effective our workouts are.

All that and more is available in a web-connected world. But those benefits come at a price — personal information. In the case of health insurance, it means handing over some of the most intimate details of our lives, and lifestyles, in exchange for a couple hundred bucks a year.

But it is the kind of deal that, apparently, millions of us are willing to make. We have been carrying smartphones with GPS tracking abilities for nearly a decade now. We carry "loyalty" cards that allow retailers to track our purchases and sell or trade that information to data brokers.

Loyalty cards are a key part of the health insurance discount. The Boston Globe reported last month that Harvard Pilgrim, one of New England's major health insurers, had launched a program that paid its workers $20 a month to shop — and then presumably eat — healthy.

To get the cash, employees have to agree to have their, "grocery purchases ... tracked electronically when participants scan loyalty cards at the checkout counters," of several grocery chains. The company is looking to expand that program to the 1.2 million people it insures through 20,000 employers.

And now, we are snapping up "wearables" by the millions. There are at least 55 companies pitching devices, generally worn like a wrist watch, that monitor things like the type and intensity of a user's activity. Interest in the technology has reportedly generated $50 billion in investments.

"There are many different types," said Rebecca Herold, CEO of The Privacy Professor, "and more are released to the market every week, or some weeks it seems daily."

Wearables that function as "fitness trackers" have, not surprisingly, been incorporated into the modern wellness program. Companies like BP and Autodesk are offering lower insurance premiums to workers who prove they are more active through the use of the data generated from trackers.

These devices track much more than steps, however. They can tell if the user is biking or running, and can calculate distances traveled and calories burned. That, of course, means "connected" devices know a user's location and how he or she got there — on foot, by bicycle or in a vehicle. The devices also capture information about sleep patterns, calories, blood pressure, heart rate and other data that most of us consider is between our doctors and us.

 

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