Healthcare insurers pose privacy concerns for wearables

Humana's Cue app reminds you to drink (water)

Health insurers are using step-counting phone apps as a Trojan horse to lure customers into sharing “very sensitive information” such as daily movement, sleep patterns and even heart rate, according to a new warning from the German Government.

The German Federal Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information, Andrea Vosshof, is the latest to express concern at how insurers are trying to entice consumers with initial discounts, and warns against using healthcare company-provided apps, describing “short-term benefits against longer-term dangers”.

The Commissioner warns that in exchange for initial discounts on health insurance, consumers may lose out in the long term, since the data collected by wearables “could be used by health insurance in order to calculate future risk surcharges”.

Could health insurers be stepping up their efforts to attract consumers to use their apps? Recently a global survey reported that two-thirds of health insurers “have failed to generate a significant reach with their app portfolio” although a few firms have managed to establish a foothold in the market.

Health Insurance App Benchmarking Report 2015

Health Insurance App Benchmarking Report 2015

The Health Insurance App Benchmarking Report 2015, published by research2guidance and available for purchase at EUR 1890, states that few insurers have so far succeeded in gaining significant reach, but notes that firms such as Bupa, Aetna and Humana are starting to make an impact with app downloads.

A wide selection of health insurers now offer free apps, such as Bupa’s Ground Miles (which claims it “will help get you walking”, and urges users to “walk together and stay social”). Another app,  HumanaVitality, pairs with a health plan to record “progress”.

Humana’s Cue app goes one step further. In the name of a healthier lifestyle, it advises users to “do small things known to result in better health”. This results in frequent reminders to drink water, stretch, breathe, straighten up and even go outside. It wouldn’t surprise us if the next version nags users to stop smoking and drinking.

Users are urged to “download Cue today to start building healthy habits”. Its privacy policy states that “we limit who can see your information to only those who need to see it”, without saying who those who “need to see it” might be. It also states that information gathered may be used “for compliance programs”, or “avert a serious and imminent threat to your health”, both of which sound ominous.

All this underlines that wearable device providers such as Fitbit are sitting on a goldmine of information generated by “Internet of Things” devices such as smart wristbands. Fitbit’s “privacy pledge” states it will never sell users’ data … except of course when it comes to its own premium service.

Fitbit is quite happy to monetize “aggregated, de-identified data that does not identify you” to third parties. This includes Fitbit’s policy of selling users’ own data back “such as by providing research or reports about health and fitness or in services provided under our Premium membership”.

In our next post, we’ll outline some easy steps that users of the most-popular wearable tech can take to “liberate” their data without needing to pay a premium.

In the meantime, think twice before signing up for that insurer-sponsored tracker.


2 Responses to Healthcare insurers pose privacy concerns for wearables

  1. […] despite its possible ulterior motives, the Cue app is surprisingly cute, and much more usable on the Watch than the iPhone version. It’s very simple – just […]

  2. […] on the wrist or waist is able to track quite a lot of personal data. Health insurers are already falling over themselves trying to give away free fitness apps such as Cue – not only for wearable tech users, but for […]

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