Image source: Garmin

Tracking fitness with smartwatches in military facilities: what’s allowed?

It was widely reported in recent weeks that the Space Force has decided to replace fitness tests, such as the Army Combat Fitness Test, with a more holistic approach using wearable fitness devices. Which has left us wondering. What is actually allowed in the military? What kind of fitness trackers and smartwatches can you wear?

There are over 1.4 million men and women in the US on active duty in the military. The bulk of these are in the Army, followed by the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Cost Guard. So quite a large population segment there.

It’s no surprise there are quite a few restrictions in Department of Defence (DoD) facilities in terms of wearable tech that you can use. Such devices automatically track a plethora of fitness data, but they also have Bluetooth and/or WiFi connectivity and some have satellite connectivity. Also, this information is synced back to commercial applications which update data servers that sit on the cloud – hence the problem.

A couple of years ago it was revealed that Polar’s fitness app inadvertently revealed the location of US military bases. The problem was with its Explore function in the Polar Flow app which shows the location of people exercising. It had the potential to reveal secretive locations such as intelligence agencies, military bases and airfields, nuclear weapons storage sites, and embassies around the world.

Essential reading: Top fitness trackers and health gadgets

Then there is Strava’s popular fitness app. It faced similar issues in the past. Gathering information from Garmins, Fitbits and similar devices, the app’s heat-map mapped places that should have been kept secret. This includes sensitive US military locations, such as those in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

So what is actually allowed in DoD facilities? As reported by ClearanceJobs a memo was issued that sums this up in five main rules.

1. What you can buy

You can’t buy just any fitness tracker of smartwatch. The device has to be commercially available in the US or at a US Military Exchange. What’s more, this has to be a fitness wearable first – so not a smartwatch. Garmin, Polar, Fitbit and other wearables fit this criteria neatly. The Apple Watch not so much. So make sure you obtain approval for your device before forking out for a purchase.

2. Wireless communication features you can’t use

The only type of wireless communication that is allowed is Bluetooth. Everything else, such as WiFi, has to be disabled. If disabling is not possible, you can’t use the device.

3. No charging during the day

Military personnel are not allowed to charge their devices during the day. So if you forgot to leave it on the charger in the evening you won’t be able to do anything about it in daytime. This is because charging cables are not allowed within DoD spaces.

4. Camera, microphone and audio capabilities are also not allowed

The more advanced wearables you can buy have microphone and audio capabilities, and there may be a handful with camera functionally. None of this is allowed. So make sure these features are switched off.

5. GPS tracking is a no no

It is no surprise that using GPS is not allowed. As illustrated above, this might reveal locations of large numbers of DOD military personnel and facilities. Lots of sports watches have this type of functionality built-in, and others are able to tap into your smartphone for a satellite signal. The guidelines are pretty clear on this one.

“Effective immediately, Defense Department personnel are prohibited from using geolocation features and functionality on government and nongovernment-issued devices, applications and services while in locations designated as operational areas.”

Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Robert Manning III said

Finally, even if your fitness tracker or smartwatch meets all these criteria – you could still be told to leave it at home. It turns out the local Cognizant Security Authority (CSA) can still forbid it – if your facility interacts with another intelligence agency or foreign entity and they think the wearable device could pose a security thread. The memo also doesn’t apply to any Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities (SCIFs) or Special Access Program Facility (SAPF).

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