Tech needs to decide which master it’s going to serve, contd.

Quantimetric Self Sensing Prototype, 1996Following up on yesterday’s post about tech we use being turned against us, let’s consider another example: the “quantified self.

The basic idea here is simple: people are unhealthy, and part of the reason why is because they don’t realize how many unhealthy choices they make every day; they drive instead of walking, eat junk food instead of healthy food, and otherwise poison themselves. So wouldn’t it be neat if technology could help them recognize those unhealthy choices?

This is the line of thinking that has launched a bunch of new companies over the last few years, such asĀ FitBit, Basis and Withings, as well as products from more established fitness-tech companies like Nike and Garmin. The details of the products vary from device to device, but the basics are all the same: they sell you some piece of wearable hardware, and that hardware monitors various statistics about your body while you wear it in order to report back to you later how your body is doing. And this in turn prods you to do better: seeing how few steps you take every day makes you think you should walk more, seeing your heart rate spike during a workout tells you you’re pushing too hard.

All of which is good! We’re a nation of fatasses (your humble author included), so anything that gets us to take better care of ourselves is commendable. Right?

Right — as long as that’s all it’s doing. But is it really? Or is that plastic band on your wrist trying to serve multiple masters as well?

The short answer is that nobody really knows. Mother Jones took a look at the privacy policies of many of these companies a few months ago, and found that they generally don’t explicitly prohibit those companies from selling the data they collect about you to third parties. The companies insist that they don’t do this — or, in the case of Fitbit, that they sell access anonymized, aggregate data only, not individual users’ records — but of course that’s just a corporate decision, one they could change whenever they decide it’s convenient to do so. And even if the privacy policies did forbid them from selling your data, they could solve that problem by just pushing out a new policy sometime down the road with the offending provision removed, and a statement that continuing to use your product means you agree to the change.

But who would want such information, you ask? My God, who wouldn’t want such information? It’s a treasure trove of incredibly intimate data about you — not just where you’ve been, but how your body is functioning. Your health insurance company would love to have access to those data, as it would make it much easier for them to predict when you’re about to have a major health crisis, so they could be sure to cancel your policy or jack up your premiums before that happens.

This isn’t even a theoretical situation; in the realm of auto insurance, it’s already happening. My car insurance company, Progressive, offers a discount if you’ll agree to let them plug a tracking device into your car, so they can monitor your driving habits. It’s pitched as a benefit — ooh, a discount! — but of course the rationale is that they can fine-tune your risk profile much more accurately if they have a detailed record of every mile you drive.

My guess is that the fitness-tracking industry will move towards selling your data in the same way — by positioning it first as a way to get a discount on your health insurance. That’s how it will start. But once you consent to being constantly monitored by your insurance company, where does it end? How long until the insurance company starts dynamically adjusting your premiums based on how many steps you took that month, or how many times you walked into a McDonald’s? And beyond insurance companies, what about advertisers? Will I eventually start seeing ads for weight loss programs because my FitBit told some ad network that I skipped the gym the last couple of weeks?

That’s what I mean by a device that’s trying to serve two masters. There are plenty of companies which would love to have all that data — and their pockets are deep enough to pay the device makers a lot more to get it than you could ever pay them to keep it private.

All of which is why — despite being generally in sympathy with the stated goals of the Quantified Self people — I have yet to buy a FitBit or other such fitness tracking device. It feels like doing so is just buying bullets for a gun that will be fired back at me at some unknown point in the future. As with my car, I want my fitness tracker to serve my interests, not someone else’s.