After a two-year wait, the Space Force Guardians received official news from military leaders this week that the newest service branch will scrap the annual fitness test and implement a new plan based on wearable fitness trackers by 2023.
According to the memo released Wednesday, the industry has already begun beta testing its plan to “use wearable technology and a software solution coupled with fitness/workout regimes and preventative health practices.”
However, reliance on personal fitness trackers has raised concerns among military security experts, particularly 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 publicly stated that the move to wearable fitness trackers will allow the service to routinely monitor Guardians’ health, rather than relying on an annual physical exam.
It comes amid a recent shift for many services to move away from a single Test, where the score can often mean the difference between career progression and exit from the force.
But Peter Singer, a senior fellow at think tank New America and an expert on cybersecurity and cyberwarfare, told Military.com that adding new hardware and sharing personal data with the wearable program could be a cause for concern.
“Of course, any technology can be attacked, but one would hope and expect that securing the systems and the data is already burned into the plan,” he said. “It will be interesting to see the guidelines they will develop on when you wear it and where you take it.”
Lynn Kirby, a spokeswoman for Space Force, did not comment on privacy concerns but did issue a statement saying the process to develop the program is still a work in progress.
“We are looking at scientifically proven ways to do this and will leverage wearable technology and tools,” Kirby said in an emailed statement. “We are still refining certain aspects of the program and plan to transition next year.”
The Department of Defense has had to grapple with wearable fitness trackers and the data they can reveal in the past.
In 2018, the Pentagon was forced to release a memo advising service members in theaters of operations and at high-profile bases to leave their fitness trackers at home for fear of leaking compromising location data to adversaries.
The policy change came after social media posts showed military personnel using Strava, a popular running and cycling app, inadvertently provided maps showing military bases and even patrol routes.
To offset these security concerns and make the holistic health program a reality for 6,800 Guardians and 6,700 civilian employees, Space Force has contracted with FitRankings, a digital health and wellness platform based in Austin, Texas.
Founded in 2015, the company has since partnered with major organizations like Under Armour, USA Cycling and Texas grocery chain HEB to motivate 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 military personnel sharing their personal information online and not realizing the impact.
He said that when Guardians decide to join Space Force and be part of their fitness program, they must take personal responsibility for how they keep their data safe and secure.
But once his company started developing and testing the service, Hitchins said FitRankings “improved our security intensively,” adding that the company will cap the data that’s added to the system.
“We’re not actually going to be collecting GPS data from users,” Hitchins told Military.com. “We will retrieve the minimum amount of data required to complete 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 of the Space Force Delta 1 unit from Vandenberg Space Force Base near Lompoc, California.
The challenge would be to get all of the Guardians in this unit to do cardio activities equivalent to running the distance from their base to Los Angeles Space Force Base, which is almost 200 miles away.
“We’re trying to build a culture around that data,” Hitchins said. “It’s really not enough just to suck data from a wearable device.”
As part of the new holistic health program, it’s not clear if Guardians who don’t already own fitness wearables will receive or be provided with a refund.
As Guardians await beta testing and program rollout, they will be required to complete an Air Force physical fitness test in 2022 if they have not already done so.
Those service members transferred from other branches of the military can rely on a test already administered by the Marine Corps, Navy, or Army.
The Space Force clarified that a physical fitness assessment conducted this year “will not be used in determining eligibility for retention or promotion, nor will it be used as a basis for disciplining administrative actions,” the memo said.
As the fitness wearables guidelines are tested and finalized, Singer said it will be interesting to see the fine line guardians need to walk between wearing the devices frequently to actively measuring fitness, but also paying attention to it to avoid exposing yourself to security risks.
“You can hope that people will be sensitive to that, but you have to know that people screw it up,” he said. “In cybersecurity, you assume breaches can happen and you assume failures. They don’t assume it’s a pristine network that nobody ever gets on.”
— Thomas Novelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.
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