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Guidry: Privacy questions surround fitness tech

Published: Friday, June 20, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

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Fitness technology has partnered wearable devices with mobile apps, allowing consumers to track their personal health. As tech companies vie to become our one-stop fitness centers, questions remain about the privacy of the data gathered and the future of consumer health care.

Although fitness gadgets and apps have been around for a while, tech companies are interested in aggregating that data. Apple announced its new HealthKit initiative at this year’s Worldwide Developers Conference, and Google is expected to make its Google Fit announcement later this month. They’re making it easier for software developers and hardware manufacturers to work together to bring health care features to consumers.

This may sound convenient, and it does offer consumers an array of exciting and even fun options. But it’s also about profits. With the rapid rise of health care spending, what better way to jump on the bandwagon than to turn millions of mobile phones into health-tracking devices?

However, according to the latest EMC Privacy Index, 62 percent of consumers don’t change their passwords regularly, and 39 percent don’t employ password protection on their mobile devices. The question isn’t whether cybercriminals or advertisers will obtain your health care data, but what they’re already doing with it. Many consumers want to know whether employers are watching their health, or if companies are selling their data to advertisers or insurers.

How can you evaluate fitness technology for yourself? Before buying a device or app, find out what information it gathers and where that information is stored. Does the data live on your device or on some server on the Internet (“in the cloud”)? Find out if you can turn off the option to send your data back to the company, and review their privacy policies. Screenshots and reviews can be helpful in learning what the app does before you buy it.

Does the device or app integrate into social media, and what kind of access does it require? Steer clear of anything that insists on full access to your contacts, calendar and social media. Ask yourself, why does the app want this access? Is it to perform a necessary function of the program, or could it be data mining or sloppy programming? Why give out that access if there is another app or gadget that does the same thing without requiring such broad permission?

One of the more dangerous aspects of fitness technology is that it can track your physical location. Remember, data can be shared to other apps and servers, perhaps without your knowledge. If you like to map your route, look for apps that store information locally rather than on the Internet. Always be cautious before announcing your physical location on Facebook or Twitter. Criminals scour social media for potential targets, so you should never advertise where you are or that you’re not home.

We can expect consumer health care technology to make great strides in the next few years. It should be interesting to see the results.

• Triona Guidry is a freelance writer and IT specialist. Her Tech Tips blog www.guidryconsulting.com/techtips offers computer help and social media advice. She can be reached at info@guidryconsulting.com or via Twitter @trionaguidry.

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