Rethinking the Security of Health and Fitness Apps


fitness appsIt might be hard to envision life before the convenience of portable devices emerged on the market. Providing everything from instant connectivity and access to information, tablets and smartphones can feel like we’re carrying a portable personal assistant everywhere we go.

But one trend emerging in the mobile device market does have its critics raising the alarm for personal security, and that’s the high numbers of consumers who use health and fitness apps. These apps, which track our healthy habits and exercise information, seem like a great way to foster a healthy lifestyle, but the reality has industry experts a little concerned.

There are literally hundreds of different health apps on the market, and they do everything from log how many calories you burned while walking your dog to helping you track the best days to get pregnant. Stop smoking and diet apps help with accountability and encouragement, and sleep monitoring apps help you figure out if you’re getting enough REM sleep by requiring you to use a wearable interface.

You, For Sale

What many consumers didn’t count on, though, was having their personal health information collected, stored, and sold to advertising agencies, retailers, and even government organizations.

In some ways, it can be a good thing that retailers and advertisers buy this information. First of all, their financial support of the app helps make it possible for consumers to use it at a cost-effective price. Moreover, the information helps these ads and businesses target the users’ interests. If your health app shows that you’ve run 300 miles so far this year, you might need a new pair of shoes, so what’s wrong with a shoe company offering you a discount?

But what if the information isn’t being bought to make life better for its users? What if health or life insurance companies want to purchase that information, or a corporation wants to take a sneak peek at its employees’ health data?

Health apps gather an incredible amount of personal information on the user, including calories burned, time spent working out, weight, blood pressure, addresses, and much, much more. If ad agencies are allowed to buy this information in order to target consumers with specific ads, what’s to stop insurance companies from buying your information and altering the price of your premiums or your coverage based on the data that you supplied to your smartphone?

Avoid Oversharing

While there’s no serious cause for alarm and no reason to delete your favorite workout app just yet, there is one problem that consumers should keep in mind since it pertains to so many areas of personal security: oversharing.

As an Internet culture, we’ve fallen into the bad habit of blindly handing over far more personal information than we should:

  • We tend to post content to Facebook that contains more details than we might have wanted to share.
  • We supply personally identifiable information like Social Security numbers to businesses that don’t actually need it.
  • We even tell our smartphones what we ate for breakfast and where we live.

This habit of oversharing can lead to a security breach in which hackers gather our information and use it against us.

Rather than panic over who’s watching your morning bike ride, it’s better to develop an ingrained sense of caution about giving your information away freely. Making it your practice to only use apps that don’t collect personally identifiable information and whose terms of service don’t include the right to sell it can give you peace of mind about your data.

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Eva Velasquez

Eva Velasquez is the President/CEO at the Identity Theft Resource Center, a non-profit organization which serves victims of identity theft. Velasquez previously served as the Vice President of Operations for the San Diego Better Business Bureau and spent 21 years at the San Diego District Attorney’s Office. Eva has a passion for consumer protection and privacy issues and is constantly striving to educate the public about these important topics. She is recognized as a nationwide expert on identity theft and has recently been featured on the Ricki Lake show and MORE magazine, as well as numerous other outlets.

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