Data is money. Alone, yours is virtually worthless, but pool all those fractions of a cent together and someone's going to make a whole load of cash. And one of the biggest someones in that business is Google.
Facebook, Google, even Apple now too – they give us wonderful services and platforms that are now so ubiquitous that we virtually feel we depend on them, and they charge us nothing at all. The agreement, though, is that these companies can largely use any details we upload to their servers in any way they wish – as per those terms of service we agree to at the skim of scroll bar and the check of a box.
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While that information consists of what music we 'like' and the odd email about internet cats, not many of us are that fussed. But, now that we're all quantifying our own biological existences with heart-rates, blood pressures and the number of steps we walk each day; suddenly it all feels a lot more personal. At the same time, that sort of data instinctively feels of much more value to these global tech giants, and that adds to the sense that maybe we're giving something away that perhaps we shouldn't.
We're not here to tell you that you shouldn't join Apple Health or Google Fit. In fact, doing so might just make the world a better place. But it's important to understand what's going on, just what these companies can do with what you give them and just how they going to use your health records to make themselves billions.
The business of digital health
Take a look at the privacy policies of most of these companies and you'll see that they're at liberty to use your personal data in conjunction with any of the company's services. Simply put, your data makes their services better – and contrary to privacy scares, the likes of Google are bound by data protection laws to keep your data anonymous.
However, once that data anonymised - i.e. your name, post code and certain other bits and pieces are taken away - that no longer becomes personal details and it's not covered by laws in the same way. Once that's happened, then Google and pals can aggregate it, share it publicly and with their partners too; and when we say 'partners' we mean anyone that they've struck a lucrative business deal with.
Provided the anonymisation has been done with due care – and that's a whole different story, check out the film Terms & Conditions for a closer look at how "anonymous" data can be pieced together to identify people – it hasn't cost you anything.
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But why is health data so important compared to all the advertising cash that this lot have been raking in up until now?
Firstly, Health data is such a big one for Google because it opens the doors from the world of advertising where its financial focus has mostly existed and into some new, diverse and more far-reaching sectors. Let's start with one of the more grotesque – insurance.
Pensions and insurance companies have to make guesses on cheery subjects like how long we're going to live. The failure to get it right 30 or 40 years ago is why the pension industry is in the mess it currently is. They didn't account for people living as long as they have, eh, voila, suddenly there's a system that they just can't afford to pay out on any more.
Ultimately, those calculations were derived from a very limited data set. Insurance companies are basically guessing their premiums, based on relatively tiny sample sizes. It's risky for them, and unfair to customers. But imagine if they could pay to access mass-anonymised health data from millions, if not billions of Apple, Google or Microsoft users.
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That's worth a lot to them, and Google's in the market, as one leading actuary explained to Wareable.
"Insurance companies pool risk and charge premiums commensurate with the level of risks taken on," said our source. "In general, the more data an insurance company has, the more refinement it can apply in setting premium rates.
"With access to millions of individuals' medical records, death data and continuous blood pressure data from smartwatches, academics and actuaries could work out much more accurately how, for example, blood pressure affects life expectancy.
"If all else is equal, the insurance company that prices risk most accurately has the opportunity to make the most money. So, that data could be incredibly valuable; although it is possible that future legislation might prevent companies using the data. In the same way, it's no longer possible to differentiate between men and women on certain insurance products."
It's not all about the money
Using data gets a bad rap, but actually, the benefits of tech ownership of large-scale health data can be a positive – and it's not all about getting rich.
Interestingly, this is something that the UK's NHS has already been doing with its care.data scheme; the idea of which is to help fund the service through non-tax gathered means. It's not a bad idea, so long as it's done carefully.
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Huge data sets can improve the reliability of pharmaceuticals and drug trials. Yes, big pharma companies are in it for the cash, another possible lucrative revenue stream for tech giants, but it has the opportunity to help millions of people.
And helping people genuinely seems to be an aim for the tech giants. Apple's open source ResearchKit system – yes, Apple and open source, you heard that right – is already being used to track patients after atrial fibrillation repair surgery. And it seems Google is set to provide data to academic research schemes for free.
It's certainly something that the research industry welcomes although the value of such a body data does come with its doubts, as Research Fellow at UCL, Dr Amanda Carr explains:
"I can see the amazing benefits to researchers; recruitment numbers increased, live real time data as often as you need it, without ever having to meet the person. But you would have to question the reliability of the data. Who are the people they are monitoring? Are they really eligible to participate? How would you bring, identity and recruit appropriate controls etc?"
When good data goes bad
But what about if this data gets into the wrong hands?
In September 2014, hackers from China broke their way into the servers of one of the largest US hospital operators, Community Health Systems Inc, and lifted the records of 4.5 million patients. According to Adam Winn, manager at IT security firm OPSWAT, each record can be sold on for at least 10 times the value of stolen credit card details.
"When a patient's medical record is stolen, their entire identity is compromised and the criminal can use it to much greater effect, like opening new lines of credit or forging contracts. There's no convenient phone number the victim can call to request a new identity the same way they can call to get a new credit card number."
This more complete information can be used to create fake IDs or buy items like drugs or equipment, which can then be sold on. Plus, to add to the fun, the criminals can also file bogus insurance claims.
It all sounds scary, but zoom out a little and it's not hard to see that these are the teething issues of a burgeoning sector. And while it's clear that the tech industry's aims are far from completely altruistic, Google or Apple the healthcare giant could be the key to better health for everyone.
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