After waiting for two years, Space Force Guardians received official word from military leadership this week that the newest service branch will scrap the annual physical fitness test and will roll out a new plan that relies on wearable fitness trackers by 2023.
The branch has already started beta-testing its plan to “use wearable technology and a software solution paired with fitness/workout regiment and preventive health practices,” according to the memo released Wednesday.
But the reliance on personal fitness trackers has raised concerns among military security experts, especially after recent incidents in which fitness tracker data shared on social media revealed the locations of military bases and patrol routes.
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While the memo released this week offered few details on what the program will look like, Space Force leadership has said publicly that the shift to wearable fitness trackers will allow the service to monitor Guardians’ health routinely instead of relying on an annual physical assessment.
It comes amid a recent shift by many of the services to break away from a single test, in which the score can often mean the difference between career advancement and being booted from the force.
But Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the think tank New America and an expert on cybersecurity and cyberwarfare, told Military.com that the addition of new hardware and the sharing of personal data with the wearable program could be cause for concern.
“Obviously, any technology can be breached, but one would hope and expect that securing the systems and the data is already baked into the plan,” he said. “It is going to be interesting to see the policies that they’ll develop on when you wear it and where you take it.”
Lynn Kirby, a spokeswoman for Space Force, didn’t comment on privacy concerns, but issued a statement saying the process for developing the program is still very much in the works.
“We are looking into more scientifically proven ways to do so and will be leveraging wearable technologies and tools,” Kirby said in an emailed statement. “We are still refining certain aspects of the program and are planning for a transition next year.”
The Department of Defense has had to grapple in the past with wearable fitness trackers and the data they can reveal.
In 2018, the Pentagon had to release a memo advising service members in deployed areas and at high-profile bases to leave their fitness trackers at home for fear of revealing compromising location data to adversaries.
The policy change came after social media posts showed that service members using Strava, a popular running and cycling app, were accidentally providing maps outlining military bases and even patrol routes.
To balance these security concerns and make the holistic health program a reality for 6,800 Guardians and 6,700 civilian employees, the Space Force has contracted with FitRankings, a digital health and wellness platform based in Austin, Texas.
The company launched in 2015 and has since partnered with major organizations such as Under Armour, USA Cycling and Texas grocery store chain HEB to incentivize their employees to stay active.
Patrick Hitchins, the CEO and founder of FitRankings, told Military.com in an interview that the Strava incident was an example of service members choosing to share their personal data online and not realizing the repercussions.
He said in choosing to join the Space Force and be part of its fitness program, Guardians will have to take personal responsibility for how they’re keeping their data safe and secure.
But as his company has begun developing and testing with the service, Hitchins said FitRankings has been “intensively upgrading our security” and added that the company will limit data that is added into the system.
“We’re actually not going to be pulling GPS data from users,” Hitchins told Military.com. “We are going to pull the minimum amount of data needed to accomplish the mission.”
Hitchins showed Military.com some of the test fitness challenges the company has developed that would ideally inspire Guardians to stay active. One would target service members from Space Force’s Delta 1 unit out of Vandenberg Space Force Base near Lompoc, California.
The challenge would entail getting all the Guardians in that unit to do cardio activity equivalent to running the distance from their base to Los Angeles Space Force Base, nearly 200 miles away.
“We’re trying to build culture around this data,” Hitchins said. “It’s really not enough to just suck data from a wearable device.”
It’s not clear under the new holistic health program whether Guardians who don’t already own fitness wearables would be reimbursed or provided one.
As Guardians await beta-testing and rollout of the program, they will be required to complete an Air Force physical fitness test in 2022 if they haven’t done so already.
Those service members who transferred in from other branches of the military can rely on a test already done by the Marine Corps, Navy or Army.
The Space Force clarified that any physical fitness assessment done this year will “not be used to determine retention or promotion eligibility; nor will they be used as a basis for discipline of administrative action,” the memo reads.
As policy for the fitness wearables is being tested and finalized, Singer said it will be interesting to see the fine line Guardians will have to walk between wearing the devices frequently to actively measure fitness but also being careful not to open themselves up to security risks.
“You can hope people are sensitive to that, but you have to know people do screw up,” he said. “In cybersecurity, you assume breaches can happen and you assume failure. You don’t assume that it’s going to be a pristine network that no one ever gets into.”
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