Every Step You Take: India's Fitness Apps Are Exploiting Users And Workers

Gayathri Vaidyanathan

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Earlier this year, an “artificial intelligence” chatbot and a human nutritionist doled out advice to 106 clients who had subscribed to a personalised fitness app developed by GOQii, an Indian health-tech company based in California.

Each of these clients had, with varying diligence, worn activity trackers on their wrists, taken photographs of everything they had eaten using the GOQii app, and uploaded these images to GOQii’s servers. 

So when the nutritionist — who we’ll call Contractor to protect her identity (and reflect her employment status) as she has signed a non-disclosure agreement with GOQii —logged into her dashboard, she was presented with a granular picture of the lives of her “players”. That’s GOQii’s preferred term for subscribers who had paid about Rs 2,000 (around $28) per quarter for the privilege of receiving daily praise, remonstration or motivation to stick to their health plans. 

“Good steps yesterday. missed deep breathing yesterday?” Contractor wrote to a man who was supposed to do five minutes of deep breathing each day. 

“Great steps yesterday,” she said to a man who had walked more than 15,000 steps the previous day. These messages, reviewed by HuffPost India, would show up as an app notification on the user’s phone. 

“Got back the Internet connection?” she asked a 42-year-old woman who couldn’t update her health stats because her Internet was down.

An errant player got a message of encouragement.

“Great steps yesterday!” she texted. “Had junk yesterday?”

“I didn’t have junk but took small quantity of mutton biryani with onion soaked in curd,” the player replied.

“The day before yesterday you had cake as well please try to maintain this once in a week.”

“Yes. Definitely.”

“Good,” Contractor said.

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Each interaction was logged by the system and used to improve GOQii’s AI...

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