Insurance Companies Want Your Fitness Data. Should You Share It With Them?

Your phone knows what your heart is doing. (Photo: NOAH BERGER/AFP/Getty Images)

There was some excitement recently when headlines appeared claiming that John Hancock Insurance was only going to sell life insurance policies to people who wear fitness trackers. According to Reuters, all of the company's existing policies would be converted to "interactive policies that track fitness and health data through wearable devices and smartphones."

Fitness will be tracked through the Vitality program that started in South Africa and was introduced to Canada in 2015 by Manulife Financial, which owns John Hancock. When you're hooked up to Vitality, you get a custom fitness program and then receive discounts on insurance, and a bunch of smaller incentives like gift cards if you hit certain fitness targets. Brooks Tingle, president and CEO of John Hancock, tells The New York Times: "The longer people live, the more money we make. If we can collectively help our customers live just a bit longer, it’s quite advantageous for us as a company."

I have an Apple Watch and try to close those goal rings everyday, and my doctor tells me I'm pretty healthy. My life insurance is with Manulife, so I thought I'd call them and switch over. My wife immediately responded, "ARE YOU CRAZY? This is such an invasion of privacy! You are going to tell the insurance company about everything you do?!!! And this is going to be mandatory?"

It turns out that most of the news sites got it wrong. John Hancock is not insisting that all policy holders report on their exercise; it's offering an option to all policy holders, but they don't have to participate. My skeptical wife immediately said "THIN EDGE OF THE WEDGE — soon you won't have a choice."

My wife is not alone in thinking this; the Province of Ontario's former Commissioner of Information and Privacy worries about this, too. "At this stage, they're saying it's voluntary," said Ann Cavoukian, who served as Ontario's Information and Privacy Commissioner from 1997 to 2014. She tells the CBC:

My gut says overtime it's not going to be voluntary, or it will be less voluntary, or there will be consequences for not doing it. Like you'll pay higher premiums because ... you're not willing to share that data. That's what disturbs me.

My wife and Cavoukian raise some good points, and they're echoed by Lisa F. Carver of Queens University, who notes that while it may be optional, there's a price to be paid by those who don't join, as in higher premiums and harder-to-get insurance. And that's just the start. More importantly, these fitness devices are getting awfully nosy; the latest Apple Watch can take electrocardiograms. Carver, a post doctoral fellow, writes in The Conversation:

Your privacy will be infringed upon by apps that pass on to your insurer all of the activities you do while wearing your smartwatch. That could include steps walked, heart rate, blood pressure – your insurer may even be able to figure out when you’re having sex.

Aging boomers: Keep running or else

older runners in race
Put on that Fitbit and get out and run. (Photo: Tom Handley/Flickr)

Carver also notes that aging boomers might run into trouble with wearable tech because they might react differently than younger people, causing more recording errors and anomalies.

Older adults are especially vulnerable to this sort of data-based gatekeeping. The glitches in wearable technology’s data collection may be amplified with older people, whose exercise behaviour might not be as strenuous as that of younger adults, and therefore subject to more recording errors.

Older users are also more likely to change their activities more often; they may not get out and run when it's raining, or stick as effectively to their plans. Carver asks, "What about people recovering from joint replacements or heart surgery? How long will these people have before their premiums go up?"

Finally, there is the issue of fairness and equity.

For those who can’t afford healthy food or recreational fitness, and those who refuse to allow their data to be harvested, life insurance premiums, and other products like mortgages, may drift out of reach.

A lot of people are saving money on car insurance these days by allowing their car to talk to their smartphone and to tell their insurance company how far and how fast they drive. Now, with the health data from fitness trackers — and maybe even the GPS data from your Apple Watch — they pretty much know where you are and what you're doing. There are so many ways this data can be used — and misused. Carver worries that the insurance companies could "end up literally dictating to us what we can and can’t do, or eat, if we want or need insurance."

I'm beginning to think my wife might be right.