Data Privacy Discussed on Capitol Hill

By Gillian Christie

Apple’s Chief Executive Officer, Tim Cook, took to the stage on September 9, 2014 to announce a slew of new products: two new iPhones, a wearable device, and a smart payment system. The wearable device – Apple Watch – tracks health and fitness data, synching with HealthKit; plays music; and communicates messages, calls, and audio recordings. It is expected to be available in early 2015.

The tremendously successful product launch culminated in Apple executives visiting Capitol Hill last week to discuss privacy and security concerns from data generated by the smartwatch. FitBit has also recently hired a lobbyist firm in Washington DC to explore privacy issues. Health data generated by wearable tracking devices is not covered by existing federal laws, including the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Many companies developing wearable tracking devices have explicitly indicated that they will not sell data to third parties, yet this remains fragmented within the industry.

Personalized health technology such as wearable tracking devices offers potential to improve health. Individuals become empowered to self-quantify and modify their health status and behaviors based on customized recommendations. While the Apple Watch has potential to improve the health of individuals, the use of data from these technologies often entails ethical, legal, and social implications.

This echoes Ford Foundation President, Darren Walker, who warned of the need to address “the dark side of the Internet” even as the many positive aspects expand in his address at the Clinton Global Initiative. His comments came in a session where Jack Ma, Alibaba’s Chief Executive Officer, emphasized the power of data technology to solve many complex social problems.

To proactively tackle these data privacy concerns, the Vitality Institute is working with the Institute of Medicine to convene an expert workshop on the ethical, legal, and social implications of personalized health technology. Participants will include representatives from the public and private sectors. This is an output from the Vitality Institute’s Commission on Health Promotion and the Prevention of Chronic Disease in Working-Age Americans that was released in June 2014. The Commission worked with stakeholders across sectors to place the power of prevention at the center of health policies and actions in the United States.


Are you an expert in privacy related issues or developing wearable tracking devices or health mobile applications? How is your company overcoming ethical, legal, and social challenges associated with data from these technologies? We want to hear from you! Tweet at the Vitality Institute @VitalityInst to share your experiences.

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