WASHINGTON, September 6, 2019 - Wearable fitness trackers are just another way of monitoring personal data. Yet the market for wearables is booming, because people want to optimize their fitness routines through self-monitoring of vital signs.
Aside from personal use, fitness tracker data is valuable for health insurance companies as it is a more efficient way to analyze a person’s fitness patterns. John Hancock, for instance, offers the Apple Watch at a high discount when paired with an insurance plan.
As these devices can track intricate details such as heart rate, calorie consumption and GPS coordinates, transparency about these practices is a must. Amid the diverse fitness tracker market, Apple and Fitbit are considered leading manufacturers. In addition to spearheading innovation in the fitness tech industry, Apple and Fitbit have been reported to have some of the most consumer-friendly policies.
Their competitors, on the other hand, still have some ways to go before they have developed a comprehensive level of security. Xiaomi and UnderArmour are two fitness tracker manufacturers that have had some discrepancies with their privacy and security practices.
Describing these four companies in the above manner is an oversimplification of their methodology. It is important to look at each individual company’s approach to privacy and to determine what benefits and gaps they have.
Apple has one of the most robust and easy-to-read privacy policies among major tech firms. Praised by the transparency of its computer and mobile devices, the Cupertino- based company puts the same amount of effort for wearables.
On its website, Apple states that privacy is a “fundamental human right.” It then goes into detail about the various ways in which a user’s privacy is protected. Concerns that Apple touches upon include encryption, third-party usage of app data and how users can modify and/or delete their data.
With the advent of the EU’s General Date Protection Regulations, multinational companies needed to update their policies to comply with international standards.
Last year, Apple launched a privacy portal allowing users to obtain a copy of the personal data associated with their account. This includes Apple ID info, App Store activity and data stored in iCloud. Additionally, the online portal has a page allowing users to correct their data and deactivate or delete their account.
For these reasons, the iPhone and Apple Watch have overlapping data protections. Apple Watch’s terms and conditions underscores the ability to control data via the privacy portal. This data is shareable with Apple’s affiliates and is combined with other personal information the company obtained, as well as with de-identified data.
Apple Watch terms note that photo and location data is shared, though it does not guarantee that data is accurate. Users are also informed that Apple can limit Watch use without any notice, and are advised to consult with a physician before starting a fitness program with the Watch.
From the start, Fitbit discloses that it does not produce medical devices and that their trackers are not meant to replace doctor consultation. In its premium services, Fitbit incorporates data of non-paying users.
We may personalize exercise and activity goals, Fitbit writes, based on past activity data and goals a user has previously set.
A separate link outlines these policies in detail. If parents have reason to believe that their child’s data was submitted without consent, they can contact Fitbit to request the removal of that data.
At a glance, this Chinese-based tech company seems to have minor privacy discrepancies. It also sells fitness trackers for a much lower price than the mainstream manufacturers. However, some security issues and limited disclosure causes Xiaomi to have a lower credibility than its competitors.
Xiaomi specifically states that neither they nor their suppliers and distributors make any specific promises about the service. Xiaomi claims it is committed to upholding privacy policies worldwide, however it explicitly states that any disputes to the company’s terms and conditions “will be litigated exclusively” in Chinese courts, where the user and Xiaomi “consent to personal jurisdiction.”
Another concerning factor of the privacy agreement is that Xiaomi doesn’t clarify what happens to personal information in the event of a merger or acquisition. The company only states that users will be notified.
Furthermore, Xiaomi fitness trackers have also been found vulnerable to Bluetooth MAC address surveillance, a flaw that’s not uncommon among trackers. According to a study by Open Effect, when a fitness tracker’s MAC address doesn’t change, it becomes easier for users to be monitored through location sharing services.
Overall, the vague and slightly intimidating nature of Xiaomi’s terms and conditions prevents the company from contributing to transparency.
Under Armour faced significant scrutiny after its subsidiary MyFitnessPal was compromised in a data breach involving 150 million accounts. Yet the company’s terms and conditions still leave room for improvement. The amount of data it collects and the default sharing options available are particularly concerning.
In addition to UA’s abundant yet vague privacy approach, UA can track a user’s location even when its app isn’t running and sharing preferences such as Activity Stats, Community Social Data and Lookup Information are set as public by default. Setting an entire account on private mode would prevent those on the user’s friend list from finding them.
California residents have some leeway with UA’s privacy agreement due to the state’s legal framework. They are permitted once a year to request a list of personal data that the company disclosed to third parties if it was used for direct marketing purposes. However, UA claims that it does not share personal data for this purpose as per a California Civil Code.
As with most multinational companies, users residing in the EU have the right to request deletion of their account.
Although UA does provide ways for users to opt out of public settings, the fact that these are set to default is alarming. UA also suffers from a lengthy and difficult to understand Terms and Conditions agreement. This implies that privacy is not on the top of UA’s priorities, which is perplexing given the aftermath of their data breach scandal.
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