The Ethics of Wearable Technology: Are Smartwatches Keeping Health Data Private?
Smartwatches and fitness trackers have become exponentially more popular over the last few years, however, they present several ethical issues regarding privacy of health data. In 2021, a Pew Research Study found that 21% of Americans use smartwatches or fitness trackers (1). By the end of 2023, it is expected that there will be approximately 225 million smartwatch users (2). While there are dozens of different brands, the most common watches include the Apple Watch and Fitbit. Not only has this technology become a trendy way to check texts and time, but it also provides important health information. However, the increased use of wearable technology poses a critical question: is the personal health information stored by these devices kept secure?
The healthcare benefits of these smart devices are expansive. They can measure physical activity, heart rate, sleep, blood pressure, calories, stress levels, alert EMS after a fall, and more. There have even been several cases, such as with Heather Hendershot, where the health features have helped save lives by detecting abnormalities or automatically alerting EMS. For Hendershot, her Apple Watch alerted her of an extremely high blood pressure, and she was later diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, “a condition where the thyroid gland produces excess thyroxine hormone” (3).
Despite all of these benefits, using smart watches presents risks since third-party companies are granted access to health data. While some of the data is used for research, much of what and where the data goes is undisclosed (4). The use of personal health data without the direct consent of the owner of the technology leads to several ethical and legal problems. For example, in 2011, Fibit faced a class-action lawsuit for selling sleep information from their users to outside companies without the owners’ permission (4). Another ethical issue arises with the possibility of breaches in personal health data, which have been shown to be detrimental to the user. These breaches of privacy can lead to direct marketing from companies targeted at smartwatch users and other forms of exploitation.
There are some regulations to protect the privacy of health data, such as the General Data Protection Regulation, which sets standards for all sensitive data, and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which regulates standards for Protected Health Information (5). However, to properly protect health data from information breaches and selling, more controlled regulations are needed.
Currently, wearable health information-providing technology serves many benefits to its users, yet presents several glaring ethical dilemmas. Should technology companies be able to sell the health data received from their products without the permission of the users? Given the health benefits of smartwatches combined with the risks of health information leakage, should you buy a smartwatch?
Edited by: Madi McMichael
Graphic Designed by: William Sun
Holko, Michelle. "Wearable fitness tracker use in federally qualified health center patients: strategies to improve the health of all of us using digital health devices." NPJ digital medicine vol. 5,1 53. 25 Apr. 2022, doi:10.1038/s41746-022-00593-x. Accessed 21 Oct. 2023.
Ruby, Daniel. "Smartwatch Statistics 2023: How Many People Use Smartwatches?" Demand Sage, 6 Mar. 2023, www.demandsage.com/smartwatch-statistics/. Accessed 21 Oct. 2023.
Orellana, Vanessa Hand. "My Apple Watch saved my life: 5 people share their stories." CNET, 9 Sept. 2020, www.cnet.com/tech/mobile/apple-watch-lifesaving-health-features-read-5-peoples-stories/. Accessed 21 Oct. 2023.
Peres da Silva, Jason. "Privacy Data Ethics of Wearable Digital Health Technology." Digitalhealth.med.edu, Brown University, 4 May 2023, digitalhealth.med.brown.edu/news/2023-05-04/ethics-wearables. Accessed 21 Oct. 2023.
"GDPR and HIPAA Compliance – Do They Overlap?" TotalHIPPA, www.totalhipaa.com/gdpr-and-hipaa/#:~:text=The%20biggest%20similarity%20between%20GDPR,Protected%20Health%20Information%20(PHI). Accessed 21 Oct. 2023.