National Post (Latest Edition)
Peter Kuitenbrouwer on the creepy plan that would see a health tracker send your insurer personal data.
Last month, John Hancock Insurance, a subsidiary of Manulife Financial Corp. based in Boston, began handing out a Fitbit to every new life insurance policy holder.
The Fitbit is an interesting little machine. Usually black and made of plastic, it is a wristband that resembles a watch but does not tell the time.
Instead the machinery somehow tracks the wearer’s movement, such as how many steps they take, and whether any of those steps involve climbing stairs.
Typically, a wearer’s Fitbit sends data to the wearer’s computer, so that at day’s end, they can calculate whether they achieved their fitness goals for the day.
John Hancock’s Fitbits work differently: they send the company up-to-the-minute information on policyholders’ level of physical activity.
“Policyholders immediately begin accumulating ‘vitality points,’ after their policy is issued,” the company said in a news release.
“The healthier their lifestyle, the more points they can accumulate to earn valuable travel, shopping and entertainment-related rewards.”
The company boasts that a policyholder with a very healthy lifestyle “could save as much as 15 per cent off their annual premium.”
Sean Pasternak, a spokesman for the company’s Toronto-based parent, Manulife, said Monday, “This is something that we are looking at bringing into the Canadian market.”
There is something creepy about this plan. It’s all very well to buy your own Fitbit.
A friend of mine who works in Toronto’s financial district bought a Fitbit and wears it faithfully; his personal fitness goal is 10,000 steps a day. At lunch, he glanced at it and saw he’d reached 3,000 steps. “Now I know that I can make my goal today if I walk home,” he said Monday.
But to what extent does the average person want to share detailed information about their activity and their health status with a private company?
“It would be crazy to do that,” says my friend.
“I would never upload data to a big corporation. You don’t know where it’s going and who’s using it.
“You may get a discount, but it goes the other way too. As soon as you have a glitch, the company is going to know about it.”
On the surface, the program sounds great. Good health and long life are great, and this gives people an additional incentive to stay healthy: financial rewards.
Presumably, the rewards don’t include discounts at Baskin-Robbins ice cream or your local pub.
And that is how this becomes a slippery slope.
What if the Fitbit tracker told your insurer you’d gone to three fried chicken outlets and a burger joint last week, and hit the liquor store on the way home?
Will it measure how often you have sex?
John Hancock says those who sign up for its “Vitality” program will start by paying a lower premium. But, the company says, if a policyholder cannot maintain the lifestyle that the lower premium assumes, then his premiums will go up. It all starts to sound rather stressful. And isn’t stress bad for you?
Lorne Marr, director of new business development at LSM Insurance, a Toronto-based life insurance company, notes that, overall, these changes will not save consumers any money.
“This is segmenting the insurance risk even further,” Marr says.
“People in regular health or poor health are going to end up paying higher rates.”
Marr raises an even more interesting question: “What happens if someone puts on a bracelet, overdoes it, and develops a health issue?”
After all, that person was only trying to win reward points!
Plus, he notes, all the information the Fitbit gathers —good and bad — will end up flowing to the Medical Information Bureau in Canada, to which all insurers belong.
All told, the Big Insurance Fitbit will end up gathering (and sharing) TMI — too much information. We can live long and prosper without it.
I would never upload data to a corporation. You don’t know who’s using it