What does your Apple Watch know about you?

Emma McGowan 9 Feb 2021

Apple's commitment to privacy is really important as we agree to provide the company with more and more of our personal info

Apple Watch was kind of a joke when it launched. Wearable tech didn’t have a great reputation at the time (remember the debacle that was Google Glass?), and Apple Watch was viewed by many as one more non-essential tech toy exclusively for those in Silicon Valley.

But that was 2015. Fast forward half a decade and Apple Watch, while certainly not cheap, is much closer to an every-person accessory than it was originally. That tends to be how it goes with Apple: The initial product is aspirational; they try out different features to see what sticks; and then it becomes more affordable and more common. (Think the iPhone. Think every Mac laptop model. Think the iPad.) 

It helps, of course, that the Apple Watch syncs so easily with the iPhone, which is the most popular phone in North America and is one of the most popular in Europe. And the price, like many Apple products, puts it firmly in the aspirational-but-still-stretch-affordable for many people.

So considering its popularity (and the fact that President Biden has one!), this week on What Does The Internet Know About Me?, we’re going to take a closer look at Apple Watch. This is another gadget that I don’t actually own myself, so I’m going to use my friend “Beatriz” (named changed for privacy, per usual) as the “me” this week. She has an Apple Watch 5.

What Apple Watch tracks

First, the obvious. In order to track your fitness on an Apple Watch — which really is the main function for most users — you need to get the Fitness app. The Fitness app tracks:

  • How often you stand up
  • How much you move
  • How many minutes of exercise you do

These three measurements make up the main feature of the Fitness app on Apple Watch, regardless of the model you have. They’re represented by three concentric rings — blue, green, and red — and the goal is to “close” your rings by meeting your goals for each.

The Watch also tracks:

  • Calories
  • Exercise minutes
  • Stand hours
  • Stand minutes
  • Distance walked
  • Flights climbed
  • Trends over time
  • Menstrual cycle
  • Sleep (on some models)
  • Blood oxygen level (on some models)

And then there’s the personal demographic info that you can choose to tell your Apple Watch. That includes:

  • First name
  • Last name
  • Date of birth
  • Sex
  • Blood type
  • Fitzpatrick skin type
  • Whether or not you use a wheelchair
  • Medications that may affect your heart rate

Apple also uses Apple Watch data in their Apple Health Studies, which are opt-in and done in collaboration with research institutions. Users who want to participate have to download the Apple Research app as well, which then connects with the Apple Watch app. If you decide to participate in a study — and FWIW, Beatriz isn’t participating in any — Apple will have slightly more info about your health, including your medical history, medications, family history, health habits.

And, of course, you can set your Apple Watch to do more than track your fitness. The features vary depending on the model you have, but Apple does consider the Watch to be an extension of your iPhone. People have a combination of notifications and functionality for email, calendar, stocks, weather, music, podcasts, calls, Apple Pay, maps, and texts. Beatriz, for example, using texts, emails, weather, and music — but doesn’t really bother with the others.

Oh, yeah — and it also has a clock.

What does Apple do with our data?

Apple has taken a hard stance on privacy — and their Apple Watch and accompanying apps hold to that. They don’t track customers over time or across third party sites for targeted advertising. They give customers the right to delete their data in most situations. They process as much data as possible on your device, not on their servers. Their Privacy Policy is written in plain language. And they’ll only share your data if they’re compelled to by law (and let’s be real: it would be a long and expensive lawsuit) or if you give them permission, like for the Apple Health Study.

This commitment to privacy is really important as we agree to give over more and more of our extremely personal information to Apple. Think about everything that’s contained on this one device. Your credit card info. Where you’ll be at any given time. Your emails, texts, calls. Everything you’ve looked for on Maps. And all of this super intimate, incredibly personal information about your body and health. 

And when you add in the fact that you need an iPhone in order to use the Watch, it’s clear that Apple has almost complete access to their customers’ lives. We’re taking a bet on Apple’s commitment to privacy and kind of crossing our fingers that they’ll stick to it.

For Beatriz, that tradeoff is worth it to access the convenience and health benefits of her Apple Watch. But she agrees: We’re taking them at their word, “and we’ll believe unless we see otherwise.” 

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