How Much Personal Data Should We Render Up to The Man?

With the advent of Apple watches — and myriad similar devices — our employers, and others, will be seeking to collect our personal information, and will be capable of doing so in great detail, if we agree. Do we?


I was talking to a very smart friend recently about the latest expensive solution looking for a problem, the Apple Watch. He convinced me that there actually is a problem, it’s just not your problem. It’s every company’s problem.

The real market for the watch is the industrial market. Human intelligence. Stop, for a moment, and imagine what a company could do with a constant stream of data about where you are, what you are doing, how you are sleeping, even what your heart rate is.

Give a connected watch to all your employees, and the little pieces of big data you’ll collect are mind-boggling. You would know when employees are engaged. Heck, you’d probably know when they are upset or when they are restless. That would sure be handy in salary negotiations, wouldn’t it?

This isn’t an Apple Watch issue, of course. Plenty of other wrist-based gadgets can (almost certainly, will) do the same things. They can gather a constant stream of data on human behavior and use big data concepts to search for savings. I know, it sounds ridiculous, but some of these things are already happening.

Insurance is the inevitable driver of big data collection. John Hancock recently revealed it would give life insurance discounts for consumers who don a wearable and share their vitals with the firm. Users get “points” for walking, playing golf, etc. Hip health insurer Oscar doesn’t give discounts, but offers monthly Amazon gift cards to customers who do much the same. They even get free tracker wristbands.

Wear a wristband, get a discount on life insurance. But at what cost? (John Hancock image)

It’s a very small leap for a company to hand out Apple Watches or Android watches — or who knows what — and require their use as a condition of employment. They won’t even have to require it. They’ll just have to give people an extra day’s vacation or a bonus — or a discount on monthly health insurance co-pays.

Maybe this doesn’t bother you. Of course, it’s a good idea to create incentives for people to be healthier. But as usual, we are rushing headlong into a brave new world with little thought to unintended consequences, and with antiquated laws that aren’t ready to handle the changes.

What will become of this data? Who owns the rights to it? How long can it be retained? To whom can it be transferred? And most important, how far is too far? Could employees be terminated if their health is seen as a long-term risk? Could that information be used in hiring decisions?

Obviously, health data collection companies have one overarching goal in mind: Keeping down employee health care costs. Figuring out who “expensive” employees are and getting them off the books — or keeping them off the books in the first place — is too profitable a possibility to be ignored.

Again: Early intervention programs and health programs can be a fantastic thing. If wristband gadgets help inspire people to take better care of themselves, that’s a godsend (though the data is mixed on their effectiveness). Human resources departments around the country could indeed play a vital role in helping restore America’s vitality.

But do you trust them to do that? Or are these programs destined to become another cost-cutting measure designed to shove costs and risks back onto individuals and away from corporations? After all, the idea of insurance is to pool risk, so individuals aren’t wiped out by calamities, and everyone gets to enjoy the freedom that a large safety net brings. Using technology to eliminate the risk from the risk pool is an awfully profitable concept, but it’s also another tear in the fabric that gives meaning to an organized society.

It also sounds great until you find yourself on the outside of the risk pool, looking in.

Now is the time to think about these privacy and social issues, not after we’re all wearing wristbands because it seems like everybody is doing it. We can save what could be a very powerful and compelling new technology by controlling its use from the outset, and ensuring that it benefits people, not profits. Don’t kid yourself. That’s going to be really hard to do.

Sure you can wear a wristband, and get a discount on life insurance. But at what cost? Share your thoughts in comments or on our Facebook page. And share this article on your Facebook page.

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Stacy Johnson

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