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The downside of wearable fitness technology

It’s almost the time of year for making New Year resolutions, and as always, fitness goals will top most lists. With so many fitness products and technologies available, there are no shortage of tools to help those goals come to fruition. As reported by Investor's Business Daily, Morgan Stanley "expects wearable device shipments to increase from 6 million units in 2013 to 248 million in 2017." Samsung has issued its own research, saying it "expects spending on technology such as smart watches and fitness trackers to increase by 182% this Christmas, compared with last Christmas."  So is there a wearable fitness device on your wish list--or shopping list--this year?

The options are starting to feel endless. According to Wired, "As of September 30 [2014], there were 266 wearable devices on the market (including 118 fitness wearables), with 23 slated for release before the year is out." Most fitness trackers monitor activity, steps, calories, sleep, and more. Popular devices come from FitBit, Jawbone, Garmin, Samsung, Microsoft, TomTom, and other technology and sports equipment vendors. Fitness bracelets, for example, monitor everything from your heart rate to your sleep cycle, providing a range of metrics that can be analyzed on smartphones and/or computer applications.

What to do with all this data? Users can decide to increase the amount of time they exercise, add more walking steps to their daily routine, adjust their hours of sleep, or recalibrate their calorie intake. The metrics these technologies provide are intended to help users eliminate the "mystery" behind meeting their own fitness goals, whatever they may be.

Many consumers unaware that data doesn’t stay on their device

But what most consumers don't realize is a potential big downside to these smart devices: the potential loss of privacy. While the average consumer may think that the data collected lives on their device or in their app, it really lives on servers owned and maintained by the device providers. For this reason, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has called these devices a "privacy nightmare."

MIT Sloan Professor Alex ‘Sandy’ PentlandDirector of the MIT Human Dynamics Lab and MIT Media Lab Entrepreneurship program, is often considered the grandfather of wearable tech, having spearheaded or inspired the development of everything from Google Glass to fitness trackers. He has expressed concern around privacy and Google Glass, but told The Verge we should "be afraid of data collection, not of wearables themselves … Wearables will allow us to be more social and productive, and supplement our memories with easily accessible information."

Do you have wearable fitness technology on your wish list or your shopping list? While there are complex issues the industry and government has to sort out around data privacy, there's also a simple approach for consumers: read the device provider’s data privacy policy. That's a start. 

Alex 'Sandy' Pentland is among the most-cited computational scientists in the world and a pioneer in computational social science, organizational engineering, and mobile computing. He directs MIT's Human Dynamics Laboratory and the MIT Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program and is an advisor for the World Economic Forum, Nissan Motor Corporation, and a variety of start-up firms. Pentland frequently teaches MIT Sloan Executive Education programs.

This entry was posted in InnovationBig Data on Fri Dec 05, 2014 by MIT Sloan Executive Education


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