Tell us your heart rate, or else: Life insurance firm now requiring fitbit, etc.

A discount or a fee?

Those of us who care about privacy issues spend a lot of time conjuring up stories about potential future disasters in an effort to focus attention on today’s dry policy decisions. If we don’t act now, one day, ordering ice cream will raise your health insurance rates; listening to this kind of music will make you unemployable; looking at that website will get you arrested by the Department of Pre-Crime, that kind of thing.  Well, we don’t have to conjure up stories any more.

Old-world life insurance company John Hancock announced this week that it’s cutting off customers who don’t agree to wear a fitbit or similar device to prove they are trying to be healthy.  Get on the treadmill, or your rates are going up…or worse yet, the firm won’t work with you at all.

The new standard goes by the cute name “interactive life insurance.” And, as is the methodology with all insurance products, it’s being framed as a discount, not a fee. Consumers who work out get gift cards!  And it’s marketed as a vitality program, designed to help consumers be healthier.  Of course, that’s just a different way of saying “Sacrifice your most personal information, or we won’t work with you.”

There’s nothing wrong with encouraging healthy behavior. I’m all for that.  And I have no doubt this works to some extent.  I do doubt it works as well as John Hancock says it does. According to Reuters, Brooks Tingle, head of John Hancock’s insurance unit, said Vitality policyholders worldwide live 13 to 21 years longer than the rest of the insured population. I’m going to guess there’s a few more undisclosed variables at play in that calculation.

There’s a way to do this that doesn’t require consumers to digitally connect their hearts to a private company’s servers, however.  We haven’t even started that conversation. So let’s begin here. What happens to this data?  What else could it be used for? Can John Hancock sell it? Can the government access it (Yes!)? Could a divorce lawyer access it (Yes!)? Will it be stored forever (I’d bet so). All these challenges come about because the U.S. still has no reasonable rules around consumer data collection and ownership.

We all know where this ends.  Life insurance companies will refuse to work with unhealthy people, as health insurance companies did with pre-existing conditions. That abomination only ended when Congress declared it illegal.   John Hancock told Reuters that extreme scenarios like this will not occur because the insurance industry is heavily regulated.  That’s true, but less true of life insurance. And do you trust state regulators to be privacy experts, and ensure that fitbit requirements begin and end with a gift card?

Don’t blame John Hancock. It’s a business doing what businesses do — attract the most profitable consumers and push away the expensive ones. In fact, I’d like that thank the firm for making people like me sound less crazy when we warn about unemployable rap music fans.  Blame our government for being decades behind is setting fair rules of play for new technologies. Time to get to work, or we will indeed have a Department of Pre-Crime soon.




About Bob Sullivan 1444 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.


  1. Finally,some sanity in insurance.How crazy is some insurance company wanting to reduce it’s future liabilities?Imagine how much better for Americans’ health and wealth,if there were incentives for healthier lifestyles,instead of an expensive welfare programs,like Obamacare?Obamacare promotes itself as insurance,when over 90% of users get massive subsidies.We can’t afford the cost of health care for millions of lazy fool Americans,who expect some doctor to bail them out of their bad behaviors.Your own body is your primary doctor.Take care of your body,if you want it to take care of you.

    • jj:

      You missed the points of this article, being the intrusive constant and forced
      collection of personal health information, plus the privacy and discrimination
      concerns this raises in private and/or government hands, and lack of controls
      over it. Would YOU like being audio and video recorded 24/7 in your home with
      no say in the matter, and decisions made based on your religion, politics, or
      free speech, race, ethnicity, sexual behavior and any other protected class?

      We are being rated by things (data points) that have nothing to do with health
      or insurance concerns, like credit reports and scores, family history/genetic
      predisposition, your employment or lack thereof, education, disabilities, and
      many more. None of these are predictors of any outcome for a single person in
      health, life, auto and other insurance.

      For you to take the side of insurance companies so broadly is terrible. I bet
      you work for one, and haven’t disclosed that conflict of interest if you do.
      A real incentive would be a discount on insurance, NOT some gift cards you
      might never use, and it would be optional, not mandatory.

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  1. Tell us your heart rate, or else: Life insurance firm now requiring fitbit, etc. – Equis Financial
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