May 27, 2015 · 3 minutes

Based in the suburbs of Boston, Virgin Pulse has long been an odd little outpost of Richard Branson's vast Virgin Group that includes everything from airlines to record labels to mobile phone networks to space tourism.

Today, Virgin Pulse's health and well-being platform built for corporate enterprises announced that it has received $92 million in new funding from Insight Venture Partners and, appropriately, its existing investor Virgin Group. The company's products gamify health tracking -- using information from fitness trackers and manually entered user data -- so that employers and HR departments can better promote healthy lifestyles with the offshoot of potentially lowering healthcare costs.

Through Virgin Pulse's platform, companies like Coca-Cola, Lockheed Martin, and Zappos can keep track of how healthy and active their employees are, and also reward them for maintaining good eating, sleeping, and exercise habits.

On one hand, what Virgin Pulse is doing is noble: It's looking to make a positive social impact using the vast quantities of health data it's collected and the experience of its experts to inform companies how to keep their employees happy and healthy.

"We think that if people install good habits in their lives then they will have more physical energy, they will be more mentally focused, and they will be more driven," said Virgin Pulse chief executive Chris Boyce. "We believe we can help people change their habits with the tools on our platform."

Taking a more cynical view of the company, it's not a stretch that allowing companies to have access to their employees eating, sleeping, and workout activity (even through Virgin's setup of notifying employers when someone earns a reward) is an overreach. I understand the benefits of having a healthy and happy workforce, but being able to track whether a worker is meeting their weight or happiness goals seems to be the total opposite of creating work/life balance.

Even the language the company uses to promote its platform seems to echo some of the worst plot developments of science fiction dystopian nightmares. From a press release description of the company: "More than 250 industry leaders representing more than 2 million employees have selected Virgin Pulse’s programs to replenish their people and ignite their business." "Replenish"? And, then there's Virgin Pulse's website, which features the tagline, "Modern life is depleting us...Too many demands, too little time." The talk of depletion and replenishment sounds like something out of A Brave New World or the film Soylent Green ("It's people!!!" Charlton Heston tells us.)

I asked Virgin Pulse's CEO Boyce whether or not the company's platform allows businesses too much access to individuals' personal lives. "Our view is that this is the individual's data. The individual signs up for this and have the data but the employer doesn't," Boyce explained. "All the employer knows is what reward category they get to be in. They don't really know a lot and they never have access to that information."

Boyce added, "From a Big Brother perspective, that's part of the reason people go with us and not an insurer or someone else. He also said that the Virgin name adds a trust level to the voluntary opt-in program. "Virgin is one of those great names that people trust. While there may be some concerns, we are very, very careful about the data. We put a lot of money into our security and to make sure that everything is safe and secure."

It's a fine line, one that companies and millions of their employees seem content to walk. Yes, it's a good idea to help improve individuals' overall health. But is going through employers the best way to do that?

Virgin Pulse, and its growing financial support, will be a great test case to watch just how far individuals are willing to go in terms of health tracking and opening up their private lives to third parties. It's either a step towards a more healthy and happy populace, or another example in our slow march towards giving up our individuality to the machines.

[Image credit: ForestWander (Creative Commons)]