Obama & His Fitbit Watch: The Privacy Implications Of Fitness Trackers

Our tech-oriented former Commander in Chief picked up a fitness tracker, and the press took notice. On St. Patrick’s Day, President Obama was seen sporting a Fitbit Surge Fitness Super Watch, which records all manner of personal statistics (including a person’s location). How safe is this data?

Fitbit’s security features are much less embarrassing than in, say, 2011. An oversight by the company made users’ sexual activity accessible on a public Google search — because “vigorous sex” counts as exercise. Oops. These days, there are still plenty of legitimate privacy concerns involved with these trackers.

Fitbit models and other fitness watches grew in popularity over the last holiday, gift-giving season. According to the New York Post, Obama was eager to jump on the Apple Watch bandwagon: “I work out hard. Word is these Apple Watches might be a good companion for my workouts. So I’m gonna see, I’m gonna test it out.” He couldn’t wait for the Apple release and sprang for a Fitbit instead.

These watches monitor several types of data. Not only does the Fitbit record workout activity and act as a daily pedometer; but it also counts calories, monitors sleep hours, and keeps track of heart rate. The Surge also automatically saves a person’s location with a built-in GPS feature. That last detail sounds frightening enough for privacy concerned civilians. The location feature could be downright dangerous for a public figure, especially one as high profile as the President of the United States. The good news? The location feature can be disabled, which the Secret Service has most certainly made happen.

Fitbit is only one of many different fitness trackers on the market. Their privacy policy remains posted on their website and was last updated in December 2014. Civilians may wish to take a cue from the Secret Service. According the Fitbit’s privacy policy, “When active, Fitbit collects data like GPS signals, device sensors, Wi-Fi access points, and cell tower IDs to determine your specific location. We store this information along with your other account information in order to provide you with location features. If you are using a mapping feature, we will send your location information to our mapping service provider so they can display your location on a map.” Scary stuff.

To access Fitbit’s features (beyond using it as a fancy bracelet), one must sign up for an online profile, which requires an email address and name. Alternatively, one can use a Facebook or Google+ profile to sign up, but this creates other potential privacy issues (such as revealing a user’s friend list). The Fitbit app can access a person’s phone contact list (but does not save this particular data). All of the data that is saved by Fitbit can be sold to third-parties. Fitbit insists that these parties are contractually bound to keep the data private (unless requested by law enforcement).