Fitbit Alta in the Bedroom

Fitbit: Helping Employers Peek into Your Lifestyle

The consumer market for activity trackers is shrinking. Smartwatches have put a dent in the sales trend for Fitbit’s old bread and butter product – the fitness tracker. Of course, the company has responded with a pretty good smartwatch to compete with Apple. But a big part of its strategy is to make a buck by helping employers track every move their employees make. At work and at home. In the gym and in the bedroom.

A 24-Hour Dashboard for Your Boss

Fitbit is selling customized trackers and software to employers and health plans. The software has lots of bells and whistles. Like delivering up-to-the-minute reports on all your activities to your boss’s smartphone.

The Washington Post explains how that’s working for Chris Zubko, an employee of a small, family-owned plastics company in Texas. Zubko is recovering from a heart attack and heart bypass surgery. So naturally, Wayne Gono is keeping close tabs on Zubko. Gono is one of the owners of this apparently paternalistic organization. He calls Zubko to say:

Man! I noticed your steps have picked up. You used to be under 2,000, now you’re over 6,000. Two times you worked out this week. Good!

Gono tells the Post:

He just wasn’t doing anything. You could tell because he would get less than 2,000 steps every day. He was one of the ones that I personally always challenged. Everybody’s pushing this guy.

We do that with everybody, especially the ones who don’t seem to be exercising.

These trackers provide a continuous stream of data: heart rate, physical activity, even sleep. Constant health surveillance.

Voluntary: We Pay, You Give Up Privacy

If this seems a little intrusive, rest assured. It’s all voluntary. Employers simply put part of the compensation package on the line to encourage employees to “willingly” give up their privacy. The boss gets to monitor your lifestyle. You get the full pay package.

Best of all, since employees have signed away their privacy rights, HIPAA privacy rules don’t apply. Fitbit acts as a data broker and it’s not regulated the same way that a health insurance company is. Sweet deal!


Call us cynical, but this seems both creepy and fraught with potential to create problems down the road. How much do you want your employer and health insurer to know about everything you do – every minute of the day and night?

Big data has big consequences.

Click here for the story in the Washington Post and here to read more about Fitbit’s employer strategy.

Fitbit Alta in the Bedroom, photograph © Fitbit Inc

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February 17, 2019

6 Responses to “Fitbit: Helping Employers Peek into Your Lifestyle”

  1. February 17, 2019 at 7:50 am, Joe Gitchell said:

    Wow–I hadn’t fully understood all of this before, Ted.

    I really like my Alta HR, but the balance of pros and cons on this offering to employers strikes me as not good.

    And I doubt that the “if you play you get your pay” arrangement would qualify as a “nudge” in the behavioral economics zone!

    Thank you for sharing.


    • February 17, 2019 at 9:54 am, Ted said:

      I agree with you, Joe. Privacy ain’t what it used to be.

  2. February 17, 2019 at 4:07 pm, Mary-jo said:

    The Orwellian nature of all these ‘helpful’ data collection gadgets is, indeed, disturbing. It must be made clear, in bold, highlighted, before-you-subscribe print for all of these tracking devices that you are giving up your privacy and some way built in to all these programs that data Sharing could be terminated if one feels uncomfortable with it. Call me paranoid, but I’m even starting to think my phone knows when I’m sleeping or awake the way it lights up or dings upon opening and closing my eyes. I choose what I sign on to very very carefully.

    • February 17, 2019 at 7:06 pm, Ted said:

      The additional layer with this is one of coercion by an employer. Sure it’s voluntary, if you don’t want the full compensation package and you don’t want to be a “team player.”

  3. February 18, 2019 at 2:56 am, Mary-jo said:

    Yes, forgot to mention the downright cruelty of that. Bias with your bottom-line thrown in. There has to be some way to make a case against the coercive aspects involved in employers that do this. I’m no lawyer, but if the attention we are trying to give to helping folks with obesity results in legitimizing actions of people acting like they are part of the ‘solution’ when, in fact, they flagrantly bully, punish, and make lives worse for people with obesity, then we need to seriously address this.

  4. February 18, 2019 at 10:31 am, sports scientist said:

    Paternalism, sometimes disguised as caring and sometimes not, has been a constant feature of most wellness programs.

    Does anyone know if this kind of move is being challenged? It’s similar in nature to charging employees more (or rather providing discounts for employees) if they participate in cotinine or other biological tests that screen for smoking behavior.

    Also, is there any info about the nature of the “incentive” (and I use that term loosely) to participate in this at the plastics company?