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Fitness trackers are a 'privacy nightmare'

Fitness trackers are a 'privacy nightmare'
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Carving out the time to exercise is only half of the battle. Disciplining yourself to actually work out is a whole other ballgame. You actually have to drag yourself down there to the track or the gym.

Some folks may have a phobia of the gym because they feel like they're in a fishbowl. They like the privacy of exercising by themselves, and fitness trackers have exploded on the scene to help with their "privacy."

But what these folks don't know is that they're being monitored even more closely with a fitness tracker than they ever were at the gym.

That's because there are loopholes in and around privacy policies to benefit advertising companies, not your privacy. And with Facebook's recent acquisition of Moves, a fitness tracking app, your exercise habits just got a lot more public.

"This is really, really a privacy nightmare," says Deborah Peel, the executive director of Patient Privacy Rights, who claims that the vast majority, if not all, of the health data collected by these types of apps have effectively "zero" protections, but is increasingly prized by online data mining and advertising firms.

These fitness apps and personal fitness trackers are monitored by the Food and Drug Administration as well as the Federal Trade Commission, but some people feel that it still isn't enough.

Think about it. Anyone with enough skill can hack into the app and follow you as you go for a jog or a hike. They'll know if you're away from home long enough to break in.

And health and wellness advertising is incredibly valuable to advertisers. These apps make you that much more vulnerable to targeted ads, and broadcast your information to other companies.

"Data mining and advertising companies already have access to vast amounts of information related to consumers' health -- companies can glean a lot from users Web browsing behavior, or the pharmacy purchases made while using consumer loyalty cards. But fitness tracking apps have the potential to provide more direct and reliable information in greater detail. And that, Chester says, could have truly devastating consequences as the information is monetized.

'Information about consumers' most intimate health conditions is going to be sold to the highest bidder,' he says. 'Employers might get access to it, insurers might get access to it, or mortgage lenders -- which could lead to a vast array of negative discriminatory practices.'"

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) doesn't protect you as much as you think, because it focuses on doctors and hospitals -- not on you and your personal health privacy.

Also, the FDA doesn't regulate apps that "are not marketed, promoted or intended for use in the diagnosis of disease or other conditions, or in the cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease, or do not otherwise meet the definition of medical device, FDA does not regulate them."

So, what can you do about it?

Start by reading the privacy policies of the apps you download and the fitness trackers you buy. If the apps explicitly state that they do not sell, rent, lend, or give away your information, then your privacy is more secure. If it only states one of these things, that is a loophole that can be exploited.

Also check to see if these apps ask for permission to access your personal information or link to your social media accounts. These are red flags that indicate they are more advertiser friendly than user friendly.

According to Mother Jones, the three major fitness tracking gadget manufacturers - Fitbit, Nike and Garmin - each have different privacy policies. All of them collect and store data from their devices, but none sell personalized info. We know Fitbit may sell anonymous, aggregate data to companies. Nike doesn't do this yet, but does share aggregate info with its subsidiaries like Converse and Umbro. Garmin's privacy policy states that any user must choose to consent before any data may be sold, but the company has no plans to make that part of its business plan.

The only fitness tracking company that explicitly forbids the sale of any data is Polar Flow, a Finland-based company governed by European privacy laws.

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