The potentials and risks of digital self-tracking – and fields of action for politics, science and medicine

Self-tracking devices and technologies like health apps or fitness bracelets are now part of everyday life for many people. This trend harbors both potentials and risks. The Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI has therefore conducted an explorative impact assessment that looks at the implications and challenges of quantified-self technologies. As part of the joint “Wissenstransfer 2.0“ project, this work was sponsored by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). Fields of action for politics, science and medicine were derived from the findings and are summarized in the policy paper (in German) “Digitale Selbstvermessung und Quantified Self – Potenziale, Risiken und Handlungsoptionen“.

Digital self-tracking or “quantified self“ – up until a few years ago, only relatively few people were concerned with this topic. Now, however, this has become a mass market, as demonstrated by the growing use of health apps, digital pedometers or the use of fitness-tracking devices. The application and growing diffusion of digital self-tracking technologies entail both potentials and risks for society.

In order to better manage the opportunities and dangers of digital self-tracking, an explorative impact assessment was conducted at the Fraunhofer ISI as part of the “Quantified Self” subproject of the “Wissenstransfer 2.0“ project sponsored by the BMBF. Interviews were conducted with advocates from the quantified-self community, scientists and members of the medical profession, and all sides were brought together to discuss the topic. The insights obtained were used to derive fields of action for politics, science and medicine.

Digital self-tracking could lead to advances in medicine

Dr. Nils B. Heyen, who is in charge of the “Quantified Self“ project at Fraunhofer ISI, made the following comments about its opportunities: “It is assumed that digital self-tracking has health benefits for its users – but generally so far there is no concrete scientific evidence for this. Self-tracking could also improve one’s knowledge of one’s own health and body. In addition, advances in medicine and science are possible if the relevant data can be used in a meaningful way to diagnose illness or personalize therapies“.

However, Heyen also points out that digital self-tracking technologies entail risks such as surveillance, discrimination and stigmatization potentials. For instance, it would be particularly critical if institutions like insurance companies, employers or banks obtained access to sensitive data on a person’s health or body and exploited these. Additional dangers result from the poor quality of devices, misinterpreting the collected data, a distorted body image and the misuse of data.

Several fields and options of action for politics, science and medicine were derived from the identified potentials and risks. Policy makers should support scientists researching the impacts of self-tracking technologies in order to identify the possible benefits for individuals’ health and any possibly undesirable implications for society.

People must have control over their own self-tracked data

In addition, politics and science should ensure that existing data protection regulations are complied with when collecting self-tracking data. It also needs to be clarified how citizens can retain control of the data they produce. Furthermore, decision makers in politics and science have to set high standards for data quality and introduce the relevant certification procedures. They should additionally enhance the public’s competence concerning health and data, and trigger a social debate to clarify issues about the individual‘s responsibility for his/her own health.

Medicine could also profit from self-tracking technologies and use these to a greater extent in the future for diagnoses and therapies, providing sufficient quality and data protection standards are guaranteed. It would be necessary to enhance and improve the medical profession’s ability to handle data, and doctors would have to get used to dealing with a new kind of patient, one with a high degree of self-knowledge and new data due to self-tracking. In general, doctors should help their patients to interpret the collected data in order to draw the right conclusions for their daily lives.

The Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI analyzes the origins and impacts of innovations. We research the short- and long-term developments of innovation processes and the impacts of new technologies and services on society. On this basis, we are able to provide our clients from industry, politics and science with recommendations for action and perspectives for key decisions. Our expertise is founded on our scientific competence as well as an interdisciplinary and systemic research approach.

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