Security advocates have been bringing up privacy concerns surrounding wearable devices in the Internet of Things a lot lately. But why would anyone care about the information tracked with fitness devices? Unsurprisingly, the first real-world answer to this question has come from lawyers in a couple of recent court cases.
What data are useful?
Those fitness trackers that have become omnipresent on people’s wrists are essentially behavior trackers. In ways analogous to how cookies track your activity online, fitness trackers track your activity in “meatspace,” the world of flesh and blood and the opposite of cyberspace. Trackers, as the name implies, allow you to track when you move, how far you move, how long you move for, where you move and, increasingly in what ways you move.
As fitness trackers become more sophisticated, they will be able to tell the difference between the movement of restful and fitful sleep, or skiing versus running versus climbing stairs, and log these data accordingly. Devices with heart rate monitors can give more accurate accounts of the exertion of exercise, or the soundness of sleep. Devices with GPS can tell when you’re exercising at home or at the gym, and they can track the length or path of your routes when you exercise outside. Devices that include altimeters can track changes in elevation during your activity as well.
Obviously, the more information that is tracked, the more useful it is for the purposes of accurately assessing caloric deficit or changes in performance. Some people share these data publicly, or within private forums to reap the benefits of collaboration with others who are tracking their own fitness. And some people choose to keep these data private. But the fact that this wealth of data is being tracked at all means that it may be of interest to others.
What is being done with the data?
The biggest fear most people have about these data is that a stalker or burglar could use them. But there are more mundane uses for third party purposes. We’re already starting to see tracking information used by insurance companies (as a “carrot” rather than as a “stick”) to positively motivate people to increase healthy activity.
Perhaps less surprisingly, law enforcement and lawyers are using this information to prosecute crimes. In one case, according to a recent article in Engadget, a plaintiff accused a defendant of invading her home and attacking her while she slept. However tracking data used by the defense was able to show that the plaintiff had not been sleeping at the time of the alleged attack. In another case last year, the plaintiff introduced her own tracking data to show decreased activity as a result of an injury.
These examples clearly show that there’s a potential upside and a downside to storing a record of your activity day and night. (Presumably the first plaintiff didn’t expect that the result of bringing her claim would be getting charged with a misdemeanor herself!) Much like tracking online behavior, it can be used for good or for ill. The question that we need to be asking ourselves before committing to recording this information is whether the potential upside outweighs the potential downside.
I suspect for most people, their wearable experiment is so short-lived that it’s a non-issue. For those who do wear their device on a regular basis for a long period of time, the majority will probably find the benefit far outweighs the risk. But to those people for whom these devices pose a risk, the risk is considerable. And as crime is by nature opportunistic and somewhat unpredictable, it is hard to know when or if that person at risk will be you.