It's all in the wrist: Your fitness tracker could be as much about data warfare as your welfare

Tick, tick, boom?

techie drinks coffee, looks at watch

Column Last year I bought one of those nifty new fitness tracker wristwatches. It counts my steps and gives a me bit of a thrilling buzz on when I've reached my daily goal. A small thing, but it means a lot.

This means I'm always under surveillance – in the best possible sense, my fitness tracker has its eye on me, continuously monitoring my motion, inertia, acceleration and velocity. It computes the necessary maths to turn those into steps and (kilo)calories. It keeps an extensive database of my activities, moment to moment.

Put like that, it sounds a bit suspicious. After all, why would anyone or anything need to keep such a close eye on anyone? But if I want to keep myself moving – and motivated – it makes sense to open up my private world, strap a sensor on, and let it listen.

This is a delicate point because our sensors don't always let us know when they're listening – something that has come back to bite Amazon among others. But the bigger question, inevitably, comes down to what happens with that data once it's gathered? Where does it go? How does it get used, and for the benefit of whom?

My fitness tracker is just smart enough to create a data trail, but not quite smart enough to go rogue with the data it gathers. It downloads to an app, and from there I can control its distribution to the world – or so I choose to believe.

But there are far too many other points in this world where data is gathered, invisibly and unacknowledged. That data – even though we generate it – does not belong to us.

I wonder how I'd feel if my fitness tracker fed all my stats to someone else – someone I wouldn't ever know – and never told me anything. I'd probably wonder why I bothered to wear it, but I'd also worry about how that data might be used. Against me.

Suppose if my fitness tracker issued a soft buzz every time I passed a cafe, and told me I'd earned a nice cake? Within a month I'd gain twenty kilos, led down the garden path by a device that had gathered enough intimate details about me to know just the right way to nudge me away from my better interests.

In a world of pervasive tracking ("this website uses cookies, please click ACCEPT"), our data gets used to nudge us, descending from the lofty promises of big data into a theatre of "data warfare", a world where businesses seek as much advantage as possible from all the data they've been able to vacuum from customers, vendors, employees – and everyone else.

As organisations gather huge stockpiles of data, they seem to grow increasingly tightfisted with their data and insights. They've found a gold mine – why share? The problem with this line of reasoning is that it quickly dead-ends in a world where the only conceivable use of data is as zero-sum competitive advantage: "I know something you don't."

If a quarter-century of the web has taught us anything, it's that "a resource shared is a resource squared". Your data may be nice, my data may be better – but it's only when we work together that we can make something truly worthwhile.

The standout organisations of the middle 21st century build value chains for data – paralleling the material value chains that drove the last century. This new age of "data welfare" sees data resources married, multiplied, shared and amplified.

I'm looking forward to a day when my fitness tracker talks to both my GP and my grocer [how about your health insurer? – Ed] so I can keep my health and my diet aligned with my activities. In a world where we're all in this together, building bridges with data – not walls. Let the the dog-eat-dogs of data warfare sleep. ®




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