Badvertising

As Wearable Tech Improves, Your Health Data Is the Product

Your vital signs will be a gold rush for marketers.

Fitbit, a device that tracks calories burned and sleep quality, already analyses and visualizes health information. [via Fitbit]

Fitbit, a device that tracks calories burned and sleep quality, already analyses and visualizes health information. [via Fitbit]

The leaked screenshots from Apple of the project codenamed “HealthBook” have whipped up excited talk about possible wearables from Apple in the near future. But when enough people are generating larger and more sophisticated sets of personal health data, the question isn’t if, but when marketers will arrive to begin buying and selling it.

As data brokers have been increasingly exposed and dragged through the mud, we’ve learned about the ways personal information is bought, packaged, and sold to marketers.

When our watch is keeping track of our vital signs, the first layer of hypotheticals are cute and harmless:

  • Your Android device notices that you’ve stopped working out as often. You start seeing ads for the local gym everywhere you browse.

  • Companies looking to market diabetes medication start watching your blood sugar. You learn about diseases from banner ads before a doctor can diagnose them.

  • You become drowsy at work. Your Starbucks app sends you a push notification for a reward, with directions to your local coffee shop.

It’s fun to speculate on the many cute and innovative ways automation will interact with health statistics, but let’s try a different set of possibilities, where the data suggests you might be vulnerable to predatory marketing schemes:

  • You decide to go on a diet. Krispy Kreme starts sending you push notifications and freebies to test your willpower.

  • Your nutritional information indicated you have unhealthy eating habits. Your information is bundled onto a list that is then sold to marketers selling junk food or delivery.

  • Employers and insurers get ahold of personal health data, and use it to inform hiring decisions. Who wants to hire a perfectly healthy person with a 61% chance of developing stress-related injuries and conditions this year based on sleep and exercise patterns?

There is already a long and storied history of targeted marketing exploiting our worst instincts, fears and desires in order to sell us junk food, cigarettes, online game subscriptions, alcohol and firearms. But now that your browsing history is fair game, digital marketing has gone beyond vaguely targeting demographics, to targeting specific individuals. Thinking that marketers might be interested in your personal health information isn’t so far a leap.

The more we develop tools to examine and explore Big Data, the more we can see trends and predict behaviors. Insurance agencies already develop their coverage based on what data suggests about everyday risks and probabilities. But what if information was available on your risks probabilities? Pre-existing conditions are so 2013.

There’s been concern that as hospitals slowly move from PC’s on portable carts to iPads, patient security could be compromised. But that information has remained relatively safe – it’s not hospitals we have to be worried about when we’re generating the data ourselves, right on our phones.

Facebook, Google, Apple – they can keep our data secure, but that won’t stop us from giving away our information happily to third party apps and developers. And at the end of the day, there’s the possibility that we just don’t care enough not to.

We don’t know what Apple has in store for their wearable tech, or for Healthbook, but we know what the technology can do already. But the more health data becomes a ubiquitous part of mobile technology, the harder it’s going to be for anyone with monied interests to ignore it.

Follow Jack Smith IV on Twitter or via RSS. jsmith@observer.com