What does your Apple Watch know about you?

Emma McGowan 22 Dec 2022

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 for rich bros in Silicon Valley.

But that was 2015. Fast forward nearly eight years  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, this holiday season we’re going to take a closer look at the Apple Watch, the most recent versions of which are the Apple Watch 8 ($399), Apple Watch SE ($249), and Apple Watch Ultra ($799).

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
  • Ovulation prediction
  • Irregular heart rate
  • 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, 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. 

Oh, yeah — and it also has a clock. Because… it’s a watch.

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. 

But while Apple has planted a flag in the ground around privacy, recent research into what data the company actually collects has left some privacy advocates concerned. Specifically, security researcher Tommy Mysk identified something called “dsId,” which stands for “Directory Services Identifier.” According to Mysk’s research, each user has a dsld, a unique identifier associated with their iCloud account. That means that even if you choose to opt out of tracking, they can theoretically still associate all of your data with your identity. 

Do we think this was done for nefarious purposes? Who knows. In the spirit of the holidays, let’s assume that it was a mistake rather than a sneaky way to get around their own stated privacy ethics. We’re still taking a bet on Apple’s commitment to privacy (kind of crossing our fingers that they’ll stick to it), but you can bet we’ll be keeping a close eye on them in 2023.

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