Wearable, Watchable: The Risks And Rewards Of The Fitbit

Curious about your Fitbit's accuracy? Safety? Security? Here are some interesting tidbits.

March 7, 2018
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The Fitbit has helped redefine how we keep in shape. By using a 3-axis accelerometer, it can read everything from how many steps we take to how many calories we burn to how much we sleep in any given day.

Fitbit enthusiasts believe the device’s ability to break down our daily activity into handy stats helps us tweak our health habits for the better, getting more in tune with our bodies in the process.

But does it really? Many have posed that question throughout the Fitbit’s rise to cultural ubiquity. Every couple of years, the device makes the news for reasons that have nothing to do with making us healthier. In fact, some critics suggest it may actually do the opposite.

The Fitbit, arguably the most popular of the slew of wearable fitness trackers, has been met multifaceted set of concerns and accusations. In 2014, a lawsuit arose after numerous customers reported a rash resulting from the Fitbit’s wristband. Two years later, Fitbit was met with another suit, this one alleging that the device’s heart-rate monitoring was inaccurate.

In addition to health concerns, there have been ethical concerns raised regarding how the device stores our data. On one hand, Fitbit data has been used as crucial evidence in criminal investigations; on the other, the data can potentially be exploited, whether by hackers or insurance providers.

Yet the discussion isn’t all bad. Others claim, and rather convincingly, that Fitbit data has saved their lives.

Despite the Fitbit’s omnipresence in our society, you might be surprised by what you still don’t know about the device. Let’s take a peek behind the electronic curtain and explore whether the Fitbit’s risks are worth its rewards.

Legal Troubles

One of the Fitbit’s main selling points is its trademarked “PurePulse” heart rate monitoring technology, which keeps a continuous, ever-accurate check on your beats-per-minute. Or so they claim.

A 2016 class action lawsuit disputes the technology’s accuracy, with three plaintiffs claiming it misread their heart rates. One plaintiff stated her physical trainer manually recorded her heart rate at 160 beats per minute, but her Fitbit Charge HR showed only 82 beats per minute. When she requested a refund, she was refused.

The suit also included a study where a cardiologist said Fitbit’s heart rate sensor was repeatedly inaccurate, and that it often failed to record a heartbeat at all (for 110 beats-per-minute or higher). And for heart rates that were captured, the study claims it was off by an average of 24.34 beats per minute.

Fitbit disputed the study, calling it “biased,” “baseless,” and lacking “scientific rigor.” They added that it was funded by the defendant’s lawyers and used a “consumer-grade electrocardiogram, not a true clinical device.” They asked the judge to throw out the case.

Fitbit was further emboldened after Consumer Reports released their own findings asserting that the company’s tech was accurate, but things went sideways after a new court order appeared. It cited three Fitbit employees who claimed the company knew their product claims were faulty but refused to make the knowledge public for fear of losing revenue.

So, who’s telling the truth? We won’t know until the final verdict is rendered, because the judge refused to dismiss the case.

And while this is the most high-profile legal battle against Fitbit, it’s hardly the only one: A 2014 class action lawsuit arose after users claimed the Fitbit Force caused skin irritation and rashes (the company issued a recall of the model and offered refunds to all affected users).

Fitbit is facing two additional lawsuits: a 2016 San Francisco federal case accuses the company of false advertising (among other charges) in regard to its sleep tracking feature, and a 2017 case accuses the company of multiple patent violations. Given all these unresolved outcomes, Fitbit’s future as an industry leader is far from certain.

Fitbit data has been a huge help for law enforcement.

Fitbit’s presence in the legal world isn’t all negative. The device’s ability to track our activity has served as crucial evidence in criminal cases.

Fitbit data took a leading role in the investigation of the 2017 slaying of Connie Dabate. After her husband told investigators she was shot by an intruder, investigators felt there were holes in his story, and Connie’s Fitbit data proved she wasn’t where he claimed she was at the time of her passing. This data, combined with other findings, allowed police to charge the husband with orchestrating her demise. As of this writing, he is still awaiting trial.

Of the Dabate case, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, District Attorney Craig Stedman told The Hartford Courant, “To say it is rare to use Fitbit records would be safe. It is an electronic footprint that tracks your movements. It is a great tool for investigators to use.”

Fitbit data also made a legal appearance in 2015 in the case of Jeannine M. Risley.

Risley had filed a police report claiming she was assaulted at knifepoint. After authorities located her Fitbit (which she claimed had been lost in the struggle), the data didn’t back up her statements. After investigators downloaded her activity, it showed she was awake and moving during the time she claimed she was asleep. Combining this data with other evidence, local law enforcement charged Risley with “false reports to law enforcement, false alarms to public safety, and tampering with evidence … ,” according to ABC27.

The Fitbit’s power to store our information, used ethically and responsibly, is a valuable resource for law enforcement. But what if that data gets into the wrong hands? We’ll look into that next.

Hackers can find out where you exercise, when you sleep, and where you work.

In 2016, hackers successfully breached several Fitbit users’ accounts in an attempt to get replacement parts under warranty. The hackers were also able to gain access to users’ GPS history, which shows everything from where a person exercises to what time they go to sleep.

Those implications are frightening, according to Internet of Things (IoT) thought leader and author Scott Amyx: “Security continues to be one of the sorest points when it comes to wearables and IoT. Hacking into home security cameras and autonomous vehicles are threatening enough, but wearables provide attackers more sensitive information about one’s health, biometrics, and even sex life.”

If that last sentence raises some eyebrows, it should. In 2011, many sexual habits of Fitbit users began popping up in Google searches. That happened because many users didn’t know their profiles’ default privacy settings made their data available in search engine results.

To Fitbit’s credit, the company acted quickly and set user activity sharing to “private” in the device’s default settings.

Amyx says that a less-discussed security risk is how the devices could affect corporate networks: “One of the hardest aspects of wearables is firmware. What was appropriate for an exercise tracking device as it grows into something bigger, unless carefully managed and updated into the firmware, creates potential vulnerabilities. Especially in an enterprise BYOD—bring your own device—context where your employees are wearing these devices in your network, it could be the potential weak link in your already vulnerable IT infrastructure.”

Data Mining

In addition to hacking risks, there’s another privacy risk many fitness tracker users (and users of any technology, for that matter) might not be aware of: the selling of your personal data.

A 2016 report from the Center for Digital Democracy and American University looked into data collection for Fitbit (and other wearable electronics, like Apple Watch and Misfit). Such devices, the report said, “are already being integrated into a growing Big Data digital health and marketing ecosystem, which is focused on gathering and monetizing personal health data in order to influence consumer behavior.”

HealthyWay

Amyx echoes these concerns: “Over the recent years, numerous platforms and services have cropped up that are sucking in health data from wearables, in some cases with compensation to consumers. For most, there are explicit opt-ins, but consumers are not always fully aware of the details in the privacy terms that might allow third parties and data aggregators to sell, distribute, and use their personal health data in ways that the consumer could never have imagined. For instance, a consumer may be unknowingly penalizing himself/herself by providing data, unbeknownst to the person, to an auto insurance company who will use the data to raise his/her premium.”

Sharing your data with Fitbit can in many ways maximize your experience with the product. Fitbit’s privacy policy says they use personal information to “provide, improve, and develop services.” They also use it to personalize your statistics, goals, and insights, and to “promote safety and security.”

But when that data is sold, it could lead to denial of health care coverage to affecting the outcome of personal injury claims, according to reporting in U.S. News and The Atlantic.

Note that the Fitbit isn’t the only device sharing personal data with outside companies—in fact, they’re not even the only fitness-tracking device to be doing so. It’s important that users understand the ways their gadgets handle their information. Oftentimes, you can alter your privacy settings to minimize the sharing of your data.

Fitbits And Eating Disorders

Beyond legal, security, and privacy issues, there is another aspect of the Fitbit worth contemplating, according to clinical psychologist Alexis Conason: It could be detrimental to those who suffer from eating disorders.

“One of my concerns with the Fitbit is that many of the programs translate into activities and calories burned,” says Conason, who specializes in treatment for overeating and body image issues. “… a lot of people struggling with eating disorders will get into that mindset of, ‘If I take that kickboxing class, I’m going to burn X amount of calories, and I just had a binge last night.’ … [We can also] get into doing exercise for the sake of trying to compensate for foods that we’ve eaten, which is the hallmark feature of bulimia.”

A 2017 study by Courtney C. Simpson and Suzanne E. Mazzeo supports this concern. The study featured 493 subjects, who either used fitness-tracking devices, like the Fitbit, or calorie-tracking devices.

The authors concluded that “fitness tracking, but not calorie tracking, emerged as a unique indicator of [eating disorder] symptomatology. This finding suggests that activity monitoring might be more aligned with disordered eating attitudes and behaviors than calorie tracking.”

Conason says obsessing over Fitbit data “can be very triggering to people who are at risk for an eating disorder” and suggests that instead of being reliant on such devices, we should more in touch with our individual health needs.

“Our bodies tell us what to do when we’re hungry, when we’ve had enough to eat, when we feel full, when we feel satisfied,” she says. “And, to me, that type of information is so much more reliable than what we’re getting from some arbitrary one-size-fits-all computer program.”

To Fitbit, or not to Fitbit?

It’s clear that there are many ethical issues worth contemplating regarding the Fitbit and other fitness tracking devices. Given so many potential problems and concerns, one can wonder if they really do more harm than good.

There’s plenty of good. Many people experience undoubtable benefits from the devices. The devices help them with their fitness goals, supplying them data they might not otherwise be cognizant of, all while lessening the extra expenses of personal trainers and repeated medical tests.

Patricia Lauder, a 73-year-old retiree from Connecticut, credits the device with saving her life. After recording an alarming resting heart rate number, she went to the hospital, where they discovered blood clots in her lungs, according to CNN.

And in 2016, then-18-year-old Sarah Jayne-McIntosh was rushed to the hospital after her Fitbit showed that her heart rate tripled at random. At the hospital, doctors discovered an undiagnosed heart condition, reported The Daily Mail.

HealthyWay

The biggest risks with the Fitbit (and similar fitness-tracking devices) involve its data: We shouldn’t treat the results as infallible replacements for medical examinations, nor should we disregard the implications of internet-stored personal information.

In the end, knowledge is always power. We will have to wait to see the results of further studies (and the standing legal cases) to shape our future conversation regarding wearable fitness tech.

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