Are Your Devices Tracking More Than You Realize?

Every step you take, every PR you make, your devices are tracking you—and likely collecting more info than you realize. Here’s where it’s going.

For the most part, “it’s relatively simple data that these devices are collecting,” says Matthew Beitz, an assistant research scientist in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine. Most trackers rely on accelerometers and altimeters, limiting them to gathering info about movement (or, for many of us, the lack thereof).

When you use a device with GPS sensors, however, things get dicier. Suddenly your data shows not only when and how much you’re moving, but where. Beitz says that, at least in theory, companies could use these numbers to figure out exactly where to put that recovery protein shake billboard, or to figure out when most athletes tend to dock themselves in front of their TVs—and thus, when to run commercials. They could even extrapolate your socioeconomic status by figuring out whether you sit or move all day for work and what kind of hours you tend to log at your job.

While Beitz stresses that there’s no evidence that companies are currently selling personal fitness data to advertisers, Michelle De Mooy, director of the Privacy and Data Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, is less confident. “Device companies rely on user data to make money, regardless of if they say they don’t directly sell or share user data—which some do, just depends on the device,” says De Mooy. For one thing, “they are using it for device optimization purposes and for new product development,” says De Mooy. In other words, your data is free R&D that’s building the next generation of devices.

But before you launch your Fitbit off a cliff, know this: “Companies need to have a good relationship with their customers, and so there’s a strong incentive to be careful with the data they share,” Beitz says. Plus, any data sold to advertisers would have identifying info “scrubbed” from it. So, for example, your name wouldn’t show up next to your run mileage. “Unfortunately, de-identification protocols are far from perfect,” she adds. It’s pretty easy to trace whose data a set of geolocation points belong to. Just find the spot where they start and finish most workouts, then use public records to search for the name that goes with that address.

We reached out to Garmin to have the company weigh in on its data-sharing policy. In an emailed statement, a Garmin spokesperson wrote: “Garmin believes that every customer owns their own
data. We do not share or sell this data to anyone, unless the customer gives us their consent.”

Of course, data collection isn’t all bad. In the future, tracking devices could play a role in making our street safer says Beitz, adding that cities can examine exactly where and when people are recreating and appropriately funnel dollars for bike lanes, sidewalks, and traffic calming measures. In fact Garmin’s latest Edge 1030 has a new feature with “Trendline” popu- larity routing that finds safe and popular places to ride via billions of data points collected from their Garmin Connect app. And fitness data collection is being seen as a promising new avenue for public health research, since it’s more reliable than asking people to recall when, where, and how much they exercised.

It’s important to know what you’re giving away, though, and where it could theoretically end up. Read the fine print of your user agreement, suggests De Mooy, and if you can’t understand it, don’t hesitate
to return the device. Or, if you really want to use the tracker but don’t want it spying on your whereabouts, De Mooy suggests this drastically de-geekifying hack: “One approach that I’ve heard about is people ‘dumbing down’ their device, turning off the GPS tracker, and just using the step counter.”

Because sometimes your smart watch is just a little too smart.