Here’s the latest wrinkle in the global data trade: Customers are trading privacy for lower insurance rates.  Insurer John Hancock and global wellness firm, Vitality, are both willing to cut your premiums – but only if they can track your activity.

It’s all part of the national data revolution, and it raises significant issues for government, both now and in the future.

Ensuring Security and Privacy
Rewarding customers with discounts for healthy behavior isn’t new. Progressive, the auto insurer, has long offered customers discounted prices to those who allow data analytics to track their driving habits – assuming they’re driving safely. But now insurers are increasingly invasive, reports Tara Siegel Bernard of The New York Times. Life insurer Discovery receives notifications when customers swipe their gym membership cards – and checks in 30 minutes later via a smartphone app to see if they’re still at the gym.

So how secure is that personal information? Who has access to your data? That’s the question, and Krishnadev Calamur at NPR isn’t buying it. “John Hancock and Vitality say the information collected won’t be sold and would only be shared with those entities that administer the program,” Calamur writes. But if that data is accessible to call centers and data processing centers overseas, you don’t know who might be able to access it over time.

Congress to the Rescue?
Privacy, regulatory and other concerns are all on the table. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is suing several employers, including Honeywell, for voluntary wellness that unfairly impose penalty on those who declined to participate – making them not so voluntary.

A draft Data Security and Breach Notification Act of 2015 – now circulating in the House – would standardize how companies protect personal information and respond to data breaches.

But the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection Director Jessica Rich worries “that hackers have monetary incentives to target individuals’ personal health data, because the information can be sold to debt collectors and private investigators,” reports iHealthBeat.

Then there is the data we willingly collect on ourselves. Academic studies have concluded that Fitbit and similar exercise monitoring devices “unnecessarily obtain information about nearby Flex devices” and don’t “provide device owners with all of the data collected.”

Big Data: Big Opportunity
All that health data has the potential to transform healthcare, reducing medical fraud, waste and abuseby allowing hospitals and organizations to compare notes, share patient data and create powerful health tools without compromising patient privacy.

Used properly, it could reduce misdiagnoses and improve outcomes in a nation where as many as 1 in 20 adults are misdiagnosed by their doctors each year. Big data analytics allows information to permeate across hospitals, insurers, researchers and state and local governments – but it currently remains siloed.

Supercomputers such as IBM’s Watson could produce better, more accurate medical decisions than doctors, suggests MIT’s Andrew McAfee, coauthor of The Second Machine Age. He recently told Smart Planet: “I’m convinced that if it’s not already the world’s best diagnostician, it will be soon.”

The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research recently partnered with Intel to mine data from wearable devices, aiming to detect patterns in the degenerative brain disease. The data shows patterns unseen by the naked eye.

Improved health outcomes might be reason enough for Americans to give up a little privacy. But the implications for how that data could be misused remain significant, and regulators and legislators may yet have much to do to protect citizens’ privacy, even in the face of improved health care.

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MeriTalk Staff