Why sports watches and fitness apps are dangerous

The NRW consumer advice center has issued warnings to nine providers of fitness apps. The accusation: violations of data protection regulations. It’s about sensitive numbers about the health of users – in a booming market.

Pedometers, sports watches and fitness apps on mobile phones are much more than a private pleasure. Behind this is a huge growth market, as this number alone shows: The major sporting goods manufacturers Under Armor, Adidas and Asics have invested more than a billion US dollars in fitness apps. This is the result of research by the Statista Digital Market Outlook (DMO).

The downside of the boom: billions of data buzzing wildly through the world. The North Rhine-Westphalia consumer advice center is now pointing out precisely this aspect of this growth market. The trend around wearables and fitness apps promises more control over one’s own body. But consumers often no longer have control over their own data.

“The sporting goods manufacturers demonstrate that they have recognized the potential of digitization,” say the Statista market observers. The purchase of apps such as MyFitnessPal or Runtastic (more than 70 million registered users) strengthens the company’s mobile presence and enables access to an audience of millions with a sports affinity.

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What is interesting for the companies is that the group of possible customers is getting bigger and bigger, because the digital fitness market is booming. By 2020, the number of users of paid fitness apps in Germany is even expected to rise to around ten million. In the USA it could even be 35 million users.

But consumers who make intensive use of all these new options should be aware that the majority of devices send a large amount of information about the fitness behavior of users to providers. What then happens to the data is not further explained or remains unclear. This is confirmed by the new study by the market watchdog team at the consumer advice center in North Rhine-Westphalia.

The consumer advocates took a close look at twelve wearables and 24 fitness apps. The problem with small computers on the body is that sports wristbands, smartwatches and fitness apps no longer just count the steps of their users: the inconspicuous everyday companions also constantly collect data such as the pulse and calorie consumption of their wearers. Or show how long and how well you sleep.

Not everything works as smoothly as expected with this data. The consumer advocates found violations of the applicable data protection laws and therefore warned nine large providers. That doesn’t mean the problem is over.

How providers trick with data

“Information in sports apps allows conclusions to be drawn about the fitness and health of consumers,” warns Ricarda Moll, a consultant for the North Rhine-Westphalia consumer center in the project Market Watchdog Digital World. A survey showed that this is a perspective that many users find bad. The majority are annoyed by having no control over the personal information they disclose online (78 percent).

Based on their legal analysis, the market watchdog experts come to the conclusion that the providers examined often leave users in the dark about what happens to the collected data: three providers only provide their data protection notices in English, and only two provide information about the particular sensitivity of the data collected Health data.

The consumer advocates found out that only one provider can obtain separate consent for the processing of this sensitive health data from the users. Another critical point is that six providers allow themselves the opportunity to make changes to the data protection declarations at any time and without actively informing the user.

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Five providers even kept it open to pass on the personal data of their users in the event of a merger or takeover by other companies. The conclusion of the consumer advice center in North Rhine-Westphalia is: “We can now say ‘rightly’: Providers collect numerous – sometimes sensitive – data and often leave consumers in the dark about its use. We don’t want to accept that, ”explained Ricarda Moll.

Kai Vogel, Head of the Health and Care Team at the Federation of German Consumer Organizations (vzbv), concludes: Consumers need secure information about the specifically proven benefits of apps and how their personal data is handled. “This can be remedied by a public, national online platform that lists high-quality health information and independent reviews of digital products in order to better inform consumers,” says Vogel.

And so that private health insurers and health insurance companies do not even come up with questionable ideas, Vogel added: “The consumer advocates categorically reject health insurance tariffs that combine financial incentives with the ongoing, permanent obligation to disclose data.”