Ok, remember about a week and a half ago when I published a post called TMI Dude!? It was about the current craze, popular among the health conscious, to use the latest sensor technology to track and report their every move and vital sign. Commonly known as the Quantified Self Movement, this trend is characterized by people wearing sensor-based devices and using the data collected to compare and contrast their accomplishments and vital statistics with others. To quote myself, “What really blows me away about this whole quantified self thing, however, is the competitive aspect of it. Virtually all of these products and programs feature ways of broadcasting your data to others in order to, for all intents and purposes, pursue awesomeness and make sure everyone knows when you have achieved it.”
Well it seems that in writing my post on June 26th, I really missed the best part of the story. Let me back up for a minute….
The “poster-device” for the Quantified Self Movement is the FitBit, a miniaturized clip-on device that describes itself thusly:
The Fitbit accurately tracks your calories burned, steps taken, distance traveled and sleep quality. The Fitbit contains a 3D motion sensor like the one found in the Nintendo Wii. The Fitbit tracks your motion in three dimensions and converts this into useful information about your daily activities. The Tracker measures the intensity and duration of your physical activities, calories burned, steps taken, distance traveled, how long it took you to fall asleep, the number of times you woke up throughout the night and how long you were actually asleep vs. just lying in bed. You can wear the Fitbit on your waist, in your pocket or on undergarments. At night, you can wear the Fitbit clipped to the included wristband in order to track your sleep. Anytime you walk by the included wireless base station, data from your Fitbit is silently uploaded in the background to Fitbit.com.
I mentioned the FitBit in passing in the TMI post, but I clearly should have done a more thorough Google search when I wrote that story. If I had, I could have been the one to break the story that showed up on TechCrunch and Gizmodo this weekend. If you think that people who track their health statistics are just a little OCD, what would you think of those that track their sexual activity using this little gizmo? Even better, how much extra time would you be sitting in front of your computer looking up your friends’ names if you read this headline: Sexual Activity Tracked By Fitbit Shows Up In Google Search Results.
It turns out that, until yesterday, users of FitBit have their data sharing settings automatically set to “public” and, as a result, their sleeping and jogging details weren’t the only thing broadcast for all to see on any Google search for FitBit results. You may have gone looking to see if your buddy is running more than you and come back finding out more than you ever wanted to know. Seems that some people like to quantify themselves so much that they don’t miss any form of physical activity, if you know what I mean. I particularly like the editorial commentary that FitBit users have added to their tracking profile. Frankly, I am not sure that I would self-report “passive, light effort” even if it were true.
Of course, the first question that comes to mind is: to what are they clipping the FitBit for this particular tracking activity. Actually, I don’t want to know. What I love about this story is the obvious commitment to calorie counting that some people clearly have. I mean, you could find worse ways to burn calories. That’s what she said.
But the real issue here, of course, is the law of unintended consequences. As I wrote in my TMI posting, people are pretty funny about what health information they want to share and what they want to keep private. As the world of social media blossoms and collides with the drive to improve health and fitness, this is precisely the kind of risky behavior that can result. Never before has a “safe sex” talk included a discussion of how to set up your computer.
If the marketplace is going to proliferate sensor-based tracking technologies for consumers, the companies that offer these products are going to have to think about themselves as healthcare companies, not just consumer product companies. This is clearly not the default position for companies that evolve from consumer electronics instead of from the hospital or health insurance world. People go crazy when they can’t get their own medical records from their own physician, but I can imagine they are equally perturbed when damn near anyone can get their very personal tracking records from a search engine because they forgot to read the manual and change the settings to “private”. Google: what an appropriate term of art here.
After scrambling over the weekend, FitBit has apparently switched the privacy settings on its users’ dashboards to “private” and arranged for the all-mystical Google to stop publishing the results in question. But I can’t believe this is the last time we will see a story like this. If there are battalions of wired people out there tracking their own and others’ every move, we are bound to learn more than we ever hoped to know about our friends and neighbors. Consumer product companies, meet your new friend HIPAA. Should be interesting.