Smart Toothbrush Sparks Concern for Data Security

The growing number of connected devices makes some concerned consumers understandably wonder what happens to the data those devices collect, and if the companies could potentially use the information they gather against them.

Such was the case with a smart toothbrush customers received when they purchased insurance premiums from Beam Dental.

Data Transferring Is Not Mentioned on the Website

The company provided the toothbrush as a way to track people’s dental hygiene habits, and I can understand why some customers felt the product crossed a line.

It’s one thing if a dentist can tell how much a person brushes and flosses at an annual checkup, but an entirely different matter if an insurance company is consistently collecting data about someone’s brushing habits.

That’s what happened in this case. Interestingly, the material on the insurance company’s website doesn’t mention the data-transferring features of the toothbrush at all.

It does, however, discuss how people receive new brushes every six months, shipped free to their doorsteps. It also highlights how people can get the toothbrushes in a variety of stylish colors and enjoy features such as an automatic shutoff feature that activates after two minutes.

The content about the brush mentions how the gadget has Bluetooth connectivity and gives people the information they need to adopt better brushing habits. Also, the base of the brush includes the word “connected,” but there are no other indications of the fact that by using the brush, people are letting their insurance company know how often and for how long they brush.

Who Sees the Information?

Clarification in Beam Dental’s help documentation reveals the company does not share the information with third parties, and instead aggregates the data to improve group rates for its customers.

However, a few years ago, when talking about his company and a loyalty points program it offers, Beam Dental CEO Alex Frommeyer mentioned plans to eventually share data with dentists in an applicable network and potentially allow them to draw conclusions, such as that people who brushed less often than recommended got more cavities.

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Other Uses of Collected Data in the Insurance Sector

Beam Dental is far from the only company that gathers data as part of its practices. Sometimes, the data collection measures make processes streamlined for insurers and customers alike, such as with the Encircle app that captures information about property damage claims.

Insurance companies are in the risk-reducing business. Many quote forms ask people how old they are and if they smoke, and their answers could determine how much those individuals pay for health or life insurance coverage.

Several years ago, John Hancock Insurance offered life insurance discounts for people who used Fitbit fitness trackers and allowed the company to see how often they exercised.

Gadgets installed on car dashboards or on steering wheels can also track drivers’ habits and reward them with better rates for operating their cars safely.

One problem some customers have with the Beam Dental toothbrush is that there is no way to use the toothbrush without allowing it to collect data, if users set it up as indicated in the product’s instructions.

A closer look at content about the toothbrush shows it mentions the device transmits data as long as people sync the product to their smartphones.

Beam Dental is probably hoping people will be so eager to use the features of the accompanying app, such as the games and the possibility of getting discounted dental visits, that they won’t mind the data transmissions — or, better yet, they won’t read the instructions carefully enough to notice.

After all, it’s safe to say most people who buy products read the fine print only enough to get informed about basic functionality, but won’t go through all the provided material as carefully as they should.

One difference in what Beam Dental is doing and the practices of many other insurance companies that collect data about their customers is that Beam Dental has not been upfront about the full extent of what the toothbrushes do.

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If the company’s website mentioned the data-capturing strategy while discussing the toothbrush’s features, people would be sufficiently informed and could choose whether or not to use it.

As it is now, the company is not straightforward enough about what its toothbrush does. The Beam Dental privacy policy, last updated a couple of years ago, goes into detail about the data that gets collected when a person uses the company’s website and app or submits health documents. It doesn’t mention the toothbrush at all.

It’s not surprising that some of the company’s customers were less than thrilled when they found out how Beam Dental knew about their brushing habits. In this era of frequent data sharing — and breaches that are all too common — it’s crucial for companies to make people aware of whether and why they collect data.