Fitness apps might improve your physical health, but how do they affect your digital health?

Gal Ringel
min read

Here's what you should consider about your data privacy when using Health-tech.

Fitness App

In November of 2019, news broke around Google’s $2.1 billion acquisition of Fitbit continuing the search giant’s push into the health market. In December of last year, we learned that the US Justice Department started investigating the deal after many -including watchdog groups Public Citizen and Center for Digital Democracy- expressed concerns about giving Google access to even more data on American consumers. This concern was shared with the European Commission who is now also launching their own investigation.

It seems like big tech acquisitions happen on the daily – so what’s so significant about Google’s big FitBit purchase to warrant attention from the DOJ and the EU, and what does this mean for health-tech? It all boils down to privacy and the ongoing debate around data ownership.

While health-tech companies and the innovations that they bring -especially in times like these- to help motivate, manage and improve our physical health are extremely valuable, we can’t lose sight of another factor that is unfortunately often ignored – our digital health. Mainly; what companies have access to our incredibly personal and valuable health data and what they’re doing with it.

From the increase in major health data breaches and hacks to key considerations of using the latest health-tech, here’s what consumers need to know to optimise both their physical and digital health.

Health Data is Valuable – Hackers Would Agree

The number of medical records that were hacked during the first half of 2019 reached 32 million, doubling the previous record set in 2018. This includes the largest breach to date, in which 19 million medical records were stolen from clinical laboratories Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp. The numbers seem to grow every year, alongside justified concerns around the security measures taken to protect this sensitive data.

It’s no coincidence that more than 25% of all data breaches are related to healthcare. Hackers are smart in identifying some of the most valuable and vulnerable data. In this case, medical records which provide access to troves of personal information that can be sold on the dark web to enable identity theft. Very few data resources offer such insight into people’s lives, which makes medical records and the companies holding them a highly coveted target. To put it in numbers, personal health information is considered three times more valuable to hackers compared to other types of personal data, including credit card information.

These alarming stats come at a time when health-tech solutions are on the rise, and there’s a rapid (and much needed!) digitization of traditional healthcare providers, which was only increased with the arrival of the Coronavirus. As activity trackers and other wearable devices become part of our daily routine, we sometimes don’t categorise certain solutions as possible gateways to our medical information. But they are.

This doesn’t mean we should simply stay “off the grid” in hopes of keeping our data safe, especially given the massive benefits health-tech brings to our modern-day lives. Instead, we need to be more vigilant about the kinds of products and companies we decide to volunteer our personal health information to. Here are a few important considerations to take to protect your healthcare data.

Consider the Why – Always Focus on Value

Why should you give this specific company access to your medical data? What sort of value are you getting in return, and is it worth it? A recent study conducted by Mine revealed that many of us allow hundreds of online tools and services to access our data even years after they’ve ceased to give any value in return. Many of these services were used only one time or without so much as opening a user account. We either forget about these services or feel overwhelmed by the need to manage them, which allows companies to continue to collect our health-related or other data.

This is an important consideration because it allows us to separate the tools we use and need from the unnecessary data baggage. You wouldn’t want your medical information to be deleted from the web altogether as this might make it impossible to receive medical treatment should you need it, so start by focusing on what truly brings you value.

Fitness Apps and Digital Health

Consider the Who –Trust is Crucial

Who really gains access to your healthcare data? Can they be trusted? Verifying the identity of companies that provide medical technology is crucial because it helps us understand who we're dealing with and allows us to make informed decisions. If possible, read the company’s privacy policy (it should be accessible to everyone but in many cases is hard to comprehend). Consider the fact that smaller startups may not have the means to protect your data adequately. In contrast, huge corporates can use your information in many different ways, some of which you might disapprove of, such as selling data to advertisers.

It’s also important to note that the business world is dynamic, which means that the company enjoying access to your data today may change ownership tomorrow. A couple of recent examples include the acquisition of FitBit by Google mentioned earlier and the collaboration between DNA-testing company 23andMe with pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline. Both news items were met with suspicion from users who were rightfully worried about the implication of such deals on their private data.

Consider You – Maintaining Physical & Digital Health is Possible

It’s very possible to continue to use the latest health-tech services and tools while protecting data ownership by managing your data regularly. Once the power shifts to the people to take control of their data, the above stats, questions and considerations will no longer seem as threatening and the relationship between consumers and healthcare technologies will become much healthier.

While the health-tech industry is different in many aspects, one thing remains the same: just like any other technology we interact with, there are pros and cons. The same way hackers recognize the value of healthcare technology, so must we. New, innovative solutions can significantly improve our lives (and even safety) like never before.   This is of course very true in the this new Coronavirus reality but also in cases like when the Apple Watch’s fall detection feature saved a man’s life by automatically calling 911. Instead of being afraid of progress or rejecting new solutions, we must ask the right questions and make technology work for us, not against us.

Fitness apps might improve your physical health, but how do they affect your digital health?

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