Things that follow you

Activity tracking devices, such as Fitbit, encourage people to form a healthy habit and stay motivated to exercise. It helps you keep track of how much you are exercising, encourages you to meet the goal you’ve set, provides overview of your workout progress, lets you see how your friends are doing, manages how much calories you are intaking, and makes you look fashionable and tech savvy. It sounds like an investment worth making, right? However, there are some issues you should consider before jumping into the fitness device wagon: privacy, security, and necessity.

Privacy, of course, is the main concern that comes with a device that can track your daily activity. It constantly monitors your personal data such as miles travelled, location, calorie intake, friends, sleep cycles, and more. What happens to the data once it is stored in the cloud? In July 2011, Fitbit received criticism for having users’ sexual activity logs searchable by Google[1]. It was due to Fitbit’s default privacy setting that made users’ activity history to be public unless users manually changed the setting to be private. Some users were not aware of this feature, and unknowingly shared their most private activities with the world. (Current default setting is set to private)

Also, there are concerns about the security issues in ways that data are being transferred between one device to another. “The fact that Fitbit chose to not use privacy feature of BTLE [Bluetooth Low Energy] could lead to potential breaches of privacy as it allows third-parties to track activities of specific users” [3]. Quiet recently, at a hacker conference in Budapest, it was demonstrated how easy it was to inject a malicious virus into wearable devices — Fitbit — via its Bluetooth connection, and ultimately infect one’s personal computer [2].

Moreover, aside from the technological concerns, I would like to examine what such tracking devices take away from the act of exercising and question if we really need such service. There are always some special moments where you don’t want technology to intervene. For some people, exercising is time for tranquility and relaxation. Does analytical breakdown about your daily activity really necessary? When does quantified self turns into surveillance? Moreover, once a device starts to compare you to your peers, it can quickly turn into a competition, changing the nature of exercise from a private fulfillment to a task. One can argue that such person can opt out of the service, but sometimes it’s hard to make such decision when everyone around you is participating in the same service.

As Internet of Things are expanding, from a personal products such as a mobile phone and watch, to home products including door lock, thermostat, refrigerator, and light system, to even bigger infrastructure such cities, the concerns for privacy and security will always remain. However, one way that designers can have an impact in rapidly developing technological world is by asking themselves a question of ‘do we really need this? how is this meaningful?’ Now we are living in a world where almost everything is possible. It is designers’ role to determine what to bring into our world.

[1] Jack Loftus, Dear Fitbit Users, Kudos On the 30 Minutes of “Vigorous Sexual Activity” Last Night, (2011)

[2] John P. Mello Jr, Researcher’s Demo Sheds Doubt on Fitbit Security (2015)

[3] Britt Cyr, Webb Horn, Daniela Miao, Michael Specter, “Security Analysis of Wearable Fitness Devices (Fitbit),” (MIT Press: 2015)

[4] M. Ryan, “Bluetooth: with low energy comes low security,” in Proceedings of the 7th USENIX conference on Offensive Technologies. (USENIX Association, 2013)