Senator wants curbs placed on fitness data use

There are no rules to prevent fitness device makers like FitBit from sharing users' personal info with anyone they choose, says Schumer

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) wants the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to investigate the data gathering and sharing practices of makers of personal fitness devices and applications.

In a statement Sunday, the senator said fitness bracelet makers like FitBit and makers of smartphone applications for fitness tracking collect highly sensitive information from individuals with few restrictions on how they can use the data.

Besides GPS location data, the applications also gather or track information such as how many steps per day an individual might take, calories burned, sleep patterns, blood pressure, weight and other data. Typically the data is uploaded to the vendor's systems for analysis and feedback.

While such applications can be useful, there are no federal regulations or other legal requirements restricting the vendors from selling the health data to third parties without the user's consent or knowledge.

If the vendors choose to, they can sell the personal health data to employers, health insurers and other third parties, creating a potential "privacy nightmare" for users, Schumer said.

Schumer called on the FTC to act quickly to institute rules that would require vendors of fitness bracelets and smartphone apps to alert users that they are being tracked and to give users the chance to opt out before any tracking can happen.

The federal government needs to review the vague policies used by such vendors that make it almost impossible for consumers to make an informed choice regarding their privacy, Schumer said.

"Personal fitness bracelets and the data they collect on your health, sleep, and location, should be just that -- personal," Schumer said.

"The fact that private health data, which is rich enough to identify the user's gait, is being gathered by applications like FitBit and can then be sold to third parties without the user's consent is a true privacy nightmare," he said.

FitBit spokeswoman Stephna May said the company agrees with Schumer's position. "We support companies getting user consent before they sell any personal data," she said in emailed comments. "It has always been our policy not to see user data; we have never sold personal data and we do not share personal data unless a user specifically directs us to do so, or under the limited exceptions described in our privacy policy."

Schumer's letter articulates the concerns that many privacy advocates have expressed over the rapid adoption of fitness bands, digital glasses and other wearable computers.

The emerging technologies promise significant and potentially revolutionary user benefits, but have also spawned concerns.

Wearable devices like fitness bracelets enable the capture and collection of a lot of data including food habits, sleep patterns, personal health, daily routines and lifestyle choices.

Many fear that without strong privacy controls, consumers could end up sharing highly detailed information with third parties that they never intended to share.

Read more about mobile apps in Computerworld's Mobile Apps Topic Center.

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Tags Gov't Legislation/RegulationFederal Trade CommissionU.S. Federal Trade CommissionregulationsecuritygovernmentFitbitprivacymobile apps

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