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article imageDigital health and risks to consumer privacy

By Tim Sandle     Dec 16, 2016 in Technology
Wearable technology has been one of the big growth areas with consumer spending, with sales of 'smart watches' and apps rising rapidly. This growth, however, poses new consumer and privacy risks according to a new report.
The report comes from the American University and the Center for Digital Democracy and it puts forward the case that there are a lack of safeguards built into the health-care system for fitness trackers. Connected health devices, ranging from watches, fitness bands, "smart" clothing, linked to apps and mobile devices, are collecting increasing amounts of data about people and their health. Data collected includes heart rates, sleep patterns, calories, stress levels and so forth.
This data is not only collected by the user (and perhaps transmitted from a device that is worn to a smartphone or tablet) it is often sent over to the manufacturer of the device and some manufacturers sell this data on. Such data is of value to insurance companies, pharmaceutical organizations and developers of other health related technologies.
The reason this happens so readily, the report indicates, is due to a weak and fragmented health-privacy regulatory system. Although the report is U.S. focused, QMed notes that most countries in the world have not reviewed their legal systems or put in place suitable regulators to keep an eye on the output from the digital health revolution. In the U.S., for instance, there have been no new federal laws specifically enacted to safeguard the personal health information collected by wearable devices.
The report is titled "Health Wearable Devices in the Big Data Era: Ensuring Privacy, Security, and Consumer Protection" and it describes the health data collected as being part of a large digital ecosystem where data is traded like any other commodity. According to the authors, a lucrative industry is developing and this is focused on "gathering and monetizing personal and health data in order to influence consumer behavior."
One area the report is concerned with is marketing. Here health information is collected about a user and then this information used to select the appropriate products to market back at the user. For example, if a wearable fitness tracker detects that a person is not very fit and a little over-weight, then dietary products might be directed at the user (and these often come from a third-party to which the user's data has been sold). The report describes such activities as "condition targeting," "look-alike modeling," "predictive analytics", "scoring," and even as far as "real-time buying."
Talking with, one of the authors, Professor Kathryn C. Montgomery, sees increased regulation as the answer: "There is an urgent need to build meaningful, effective, and enforceable safeguards into its foundation." The report provides a framework for what such regulation might look like.
More about wearable technology, werarables, digital health, Technology, Health
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