Are Fitness Trackers Safe for Privacy?
By Nick Anderson 6 minutes
It wouldn’t be wrong to say that for some people, fitness trackers have become as important as the smartphone. People who live an active lifestyle and want to keep track of things such as calories burned, heart rate, time elapsed, and more, have found fitness trackers to be extremely useful. Fitness trackers strap on the wrist like a normal watch, which also makes them convenient to carry around.
But with such functionality aimed at delivering a personal experience, there’s an inevitable concern surrounding privacy. Fitness trackers collect health data that is personal in nature. Protecting that data and how the fitness tracker manufacturers collect, store, and process that data is key to answering the question that is are fitness trackers safe?
What Data Does Fitness Trackers Collect?
Fitness Trackers come in different shapes and sizes, offering different levels of functionality. From simply counting steps and heartbeat to tracking sleep and morning routine, oxygen (O2) intake, blood pressure, and even taking ECG (Electrocardiogram), fitness trackers deliver a comprehensive experience with regards to your health.
At the minimum, fitness trackers require you to pair them with a smartphone and connect to the internet via an app. Although you can use the fitness tracker, its functionality will be limited.
For example, fitness trackers and smartwatches such as Fitbit and Apple Watch need a connection to the internet for GPS tracking to calculate how much distance you have covered. It needs to know your location so that when you start a run, it can sketch a trail at the end of a run.
Based on what features you are using, fitness trackers can collect the following information about you.
- Resting heart rate
- Number of steps
- Beats per minute
- GPS history
- Text, call, and contacts information
- Sleep pattern
Do Fitness Trackers Track Your Location?
Fitness trackers with GPS need access to your location to carry out certain functions. Normally, fitness trackers can count the steps just by calculating the activity. But if you want to track your morning run and see how much you have traveled at the end, GPS functionality will provide that statistic on a virtual map about your latest run.
Some fitness trackers pair with the phone for GPS functionality.
Concerns About Fitbit’s Data Privacy
Fitbit is one of the leading names in the fitness tracker industry. It was acquired by Google earlier this year in 2021. The question around Fitbit’s data privacy was the leading concern for millions of users worldwide when the acquisition was announced.
Google has a reputation for data collection and profiling users for targeted advertisement. It has a suite of applications and an ad network that uses data collected from different vectors. So when the news broke out about Google’s plans to acquire a fitness and health tracking company that hosts data of millions of people, there were concerns around what it means for privacy.
Google had to assure the European Commission that it would not use health data for advertisement purposes. it stated that it will not use such data for use in its ads network and that Fitbit will operate separately. And while Google said it will keep data collected from Fitbit in a separate silo for a period of ten years, it is hard to believe that the two will not eventually meet at one point.
Are Fitness Trackers Safe?
The data collected by fitness trackers is extremely sensitive. The statistics obtained from the devices can tell a lot about your personal health. Imagine if someone has a higher body-fat percentage and the data pointed out that the person has a sedentary lifestyle and a higher than normal resting BPM. Such data could be used as an indication that the person is likely to suffer from a fatal disease like a heart attack. The data could be sold to insurance companies so that you can be marked as a potential customer.
These are the kind of horrific downsides to health data collection that you should be worried about. Activity data is also important. As Strava’s user data revealed, location data can be dangerous in certain contexts. The fitness app published a heatmap using aggregated data of users who used the app and allowed their location to be collected. The heatmap inadvertently revealed the location of military bases.
There is currently no evidence to suggest that fitness tracker manufacturers have an ulterior motive of harvesting data for selling it to advertisers and insurance companies. However, we also have other factors to worry about, such as a cyberattack. Your data is hosted on servers operated by the manufacturer and it could be compromised in the event of a data breach.
Business practices and privacy policies of the service can give you a better understanding of how your data will be handled. So, are fitness trackers safe? There’s no straight answer. The functionality of fitness trackers revolves around knowing about your health. So if the idea of your health and fitness data being collected does not sit well with you, then perhaps you shouldn’t be using it.
Can a VPN Protect My Fitness Tracker Data?
Fitness trackers pair with an app on your phone to work. You are required to create an account so that data collected from your device can be backed up into the cloud on your account.
A VPN only goes as far as protecting data while it’s in transit. It encrypts data and moves it securely through a virtual tunnel to its destination. Your fitness and health data is tied to the user account that is hosted by the device’s manufacturer. Hence, you cannot hope to prevent the data from leaking out by using a VPN.
What we do know is that fitness trackers collect some of the most personal information you can have, and there will always be a risk of it being misused.