Students at Oral Roberts University have been asked to submit their exercise records since the school began. Recently, the school announced that students will be required to purchase and use a FitBit personal fitness and health tracker, with the data being synced with university record-keepers.
Now, before I go any further, I want to say that I have a FitBit and really like the kinds of data I get. I opt to keep my data to myself (I don’t like competing with other people about my exercise – I find that a lot of social media’s motivational push actually backfires on me). In my case, the benefits to my health, when weighed against the fact that my heart rate is floating around in the cloud somewhere, win out.
But this Oral Roberts decision brings up an interesting question relating to next year’s themes of and personal data management. What happens when others — not just anonymous FitBit employees, but the people who teach us, feed us on campus, house us in dorms, and, in the case of a religious university, guide our spiritual development, also have access to our data?
And what kinds of data do they get? Exercise minutes, as in the past, to be sure. But today’s fitness trackers don’t just count steps, like an old-school pedometer or a distance measuring wheel used in track and field. They are what Zuboff would call “automating” devices — there’s so much more data that can be captured. For example, your FitBit data can display the time of day of exercise (violating curfew, anybody? Now you’re busted). And even the heart rate (not a good health insurance risk!). If a user logs food, that gets tracked, too (Twinkie? Gotcha. At the same time, if it looks like you are anorexic? We can intercede.)
What are the ethical responsibilities of those who hold our data, whether it’s my steps or my photo collection? What are the responsibilities of those who have access to our data? Most importantly, what are the unintended consequences, and how do we teach ourselves to
These are the kinds of questions that make me excited for year two of our grant. Oh, and according to my FitBit, I’ll be hitting the gym tonight.
Image: “Traqueur d’activité Fitbit Charge HR au poignet” by Wuefab on Wikipedia. CC-BY-SA-4.0.