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Surveillance Disguised as a Tool for Wellness

-- By JamieLee - 29 Oct 2021


Now more than ever, “wellness” is used to sell products, encourage behaviors, and of most relevant concern, justify surveillance. In our world of already overreaching surveillance, companies are taking a step further into our private lives in the name of mental and physical well-being. The ultimate consequence of programs such as these is that surveillance by corporate entities increasingly presents itself to users as something of a fair trade – something we opt into to better ourselves and our lives. But do we truly understand the implications of a world in which companies have access not just to our e-mails and chats, but the number of calories we consume in a day, a log of our menstrual cycles and sexual activity, and other highly personal data that we only share with trusted individuals?

This essay will examine how technologies in the areas of healthcare and fitness has opened the gates for corporations to surveil details that previously had no business existing in the public sphere. Under the umbrella of physical and mental wellness, we will examine how users have been persuaded to sign away the most intimate details of their lives, exacerbating the loss of freedom of thought.

Physical Wellness: Tracking Your Every Step

Tech has become an integral part to how the modern world engages with just about every industry, and fitness/health are no exception. COVID-19 has only accelerated these companies’ usage of apps and online programs in an effort to keep users engaged without in-person accessibility. Today, we have countless methods of monitoring our fitness routines. Apps like MyFitnessPal? allow users to log everything they eat throughout the day while Apple watches and Fitbits count every step we take. While marketed as tools for helping individuals responsibly monitor their own health and wellness, it also serves the function of creating new pathways of surveillance into increasingly more intimate portions of our lives. Another concerning layer of this marketing is the fact that users are the ones to invite this kind of surveillance, as an affirmative step to improving their health, with little understanding of the privacy risks involved.

Incidents such as MyFitnessPal? ’s 2018 data breach, in which 150 million user accounts were affected, are not isolated incidents. The sheer volume of data being collected by corporations that compromise users’ rights for profit, makes for an inevitable future of continuing breaches. Apple watches and Fitbits go a step further. Without requiring so much as a manual input, they calculate the number of steps we walk, calories we burn, workouts we complete. They store and share that information with us, our friends, and the company behind the product.

While users believe that using such applications and devices to track their activity only helps them in the long run, they unwittingly compromise their right to privacy and perpetuate the ever-growing notion that technology – however secure – should be welcomed into every corner of our lives. Behind the technology is a corporate entity, and that corporate entity’s primary focus to make a profit. That likely involves collecting, selling, and storing our data. Sure, the users benefit from the use of their data when they receive a calculation of how many calories they should eat in order to reach their target weight by a certain date. But users’ wellness is not the company’s priority. What these companies do with our data is a matter which slips out of our control once we become willing users in their products and services.

Another Cost to Healthcare

When interactions with healthcare professionals are conducted via video-conferencing software, privacy is deprioritized and a few consequences result from this phenomenon. Most obviously, our private sessions are not secure on platforms such as Zoom and Google Meet, which many healthcare professionals use in lieu of their own secure portals. Additionally, conducting such meetings on these platforms further normalizes the service-privacy tradeoff that we simultaneously face with educational institutions and workplaces. Schools and corporations have, for the most part, conveyed the narrative that platforms like Zoom/Google Meet are used because there are no other alternatives. We know this isn’t true. There are no other alternatives that seem as easy as Zoom and Google Meet, which is exactly what these companies rely on to secure more users who are willing to overlook privacy for an easy solution.

If appointments with healthcare providers require a level of privacy that warrants private examination rooms and secure messaging, shouldn’t the same care be applied to ensuring privacy through new modes of technology? Instead, researchers are now developing methods in which mental health professionals can access data from patients’ smartphones to understand and monitor them more closely. Developments such as these reach far beyond the logging of meals or tracking of steps. A world in which our healthcare providers, as well as a host of entities behind the technology, have access to our every move – even without affirmative action on our part – is not very far away. Essential services such as healthcare should not be utilized to perpetuate the idea that exchanging privacy for services is an inevitable part of our lives.

The Pursuit Continues

As the telehealth and fitness industries continue to boom, it is imperative to find solutions to regain and protect users’ privacy and to develop deeper understanding of the consequences that such products and services will have on our culture and society. Much like the institutions that blindly rely on Zoom, users often opt for whatever is easiest and most convenient. If users feel that invasive apps are necessary for their pursuit of physical and mental wellness, they will ultimately choose to continue using them. It is important that in areas such as healthcare, standards of privacy are strictly maintained, in part so that we do not normalize a world in which privacy is constantly deprioritized or treated like compensation for care being received.

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Revision 1r1 - 29 Oct 2021 - 20:50:50 - JamieLee
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