The Rise of Health-Tracking Wearables at the Workplace Raises Privacy & Ethical Concerns

Based on a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, around one-fifth of companies that offer health insurance collected data from their employees’ wearable devices last year, up from 14% from the previous year.

This kind of data is becoming increasingly valuable for both employers and insurance companies looking to aggregate health intelligence from the workforce. In fact, this trend represents a prime driver behind the mushrooming of wearable health and fitness monitors, particularly, wrist-worn devices made by the likes of Fitbit and Apple.

According to tech consulting firm ABI Research, the annual sales of wearable devices for use in company wellness programs are estimated to grow to 18 million in 2023 in the US alone.

The goal is noble: helping people stay fit and save on health-care costs. The offer is enticing: employees that voluntarily sign up for these programs are often motivated by reduced premiums, reimbursements, and deductibles. Oftentimes, these devices are handed out free or sold at a discounted price.

So What’s the Problem?

It goes without saying that this scenario carries huge privacy concerns and will surely reshape the relationship between employees and their employers. I must note here that the collected data falls under the protection federal rules that prevent non-consensual disclosure health records, but if we’ve learned anything over the past decade it’s that these kinds of rules are often broken.

Furthermore, the data could be used to discriminate against employees that engage in unhealthy behaviors during off-duty hours, such as smoking or drinking. It’s not hard to imagine an employer favoring a ‘healthier’ employee for a promotion, or even laying off one that they think could rack up hefty medical bills. The same can be argued about insurance companies, which would try to adjust their premiums to hedge their costs as well.

It is also not very clear where the data always ends up. The data is collected by the tracker, streams to the user’s phone through a bespoke app before taking any of a number of routes from thereon. It can be transferred back to the developer of the device, to a health insurance company, to the employer’s database, or to an unknown destination.

In fact, a closer inspection of Fitbit’s privacy policy reveals that the company has the right to share the information it collects with corporate affiliates, service providers, as well as unnamed “other partners.’’