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Privacy Perspectives | Wearable Devices: Inspiring Coaches or Naughty Toddlers? Related reading: Privacy Is Not Dead: “It’s Aliiiive”


Most people know that wearable devices can be watches, fitness bands and glasses. But they can also be rings, communication devices that harken back to Get Smart and Agent 99, smart contact lenses, solar-powered charging shoes and “other things” that might give you a charge but make a delicate flower like me blush. When you consider the variety, it is not so easy to quickly define wearable devices or categorize our opinions about them. Are they inspiring coaches, egging us on to better health and fitness or naughty toddlers with very little parental supervision, who can’t really be expected to behave until they mature and start to care about rules and social norms? Are they even potty-trained yet?

The answer is, as you might expect, “It depends.”

Wearable devices in general are subject to very little regulation right now, or even cultural and behavioral norms. So we can’t really expect them to behave in a vacuum, particularly while we are also purposely allowing them to push the envelope for our entertainment value, fitness and love of gadgetry. Even this would-be Luddite has a Basis band, and now I can’t seem to live without knowing how many steps I’ve taken in a day, why my heart rate isn’t going up when I am animated and making a brilliant (in my own mind) legal argument and what the heck is going on when I’m driving that makes my band register eight minutes of biking every morning. And my sleep reports? They show that I get a very good night’s sleep even with significant temperature fluctuations (don’t ask) and 25-30 tosses and turns per night; apparently only the other lucky people in my bed suffer.

I believe that wearable devices can create significant lifestyle value and help us to be healthier, better-informed people. But what about the risks? Where is all that data going? Is someone doing analytics on the data of which we are unaware? Is the data being securely transmitted and stored? Who is using it and for what purpose? And what’s in it for us, as well as those around us who may be caught up in our life-logging habits?

Much of the time, the data that a wearable is collecting is not evident from its face, so determining what data those sensors and wireless connections are collecting and transmitting may not be obvious.

Some of the more challenging issues with privacy in the context of wearable devices include how to apply typical privacy principles in context. If notice and choice to anyone but the immediate user is impractical or even impossible, do we instill more vigor into transparency and accountability? Heaven knows that data minimization may not be the point at all; how am I supposed to get all the benefits from my smart tattoo if I limit the data it collects to my comfort zone from 1999? After all, if I am going to make it all about me, it’s hard to complain that it’s ... all about me.

Nevertheless, we remain appropriately concerned about setting appropriate limits, such as:

  • Data abuse/misuse: For example, why would a wearable device that allows mobile payments need to access my contacts from its app?
  • Profiling: I’m warning you right now, do not try to raise my health insurance rates merely because of my Ruby Jewel ice cream sandwich addiction! They lower my stress. And they’re all-natural!
  • Safety: Even an old-school crook might stake out your location to know when you are away. Why let a wearable device transmit where you are at all times?
  • Embarrassment: How much of my spastic movements or habits is this thing recording, and is it perchance being videotaped? Or worse, especially when we consider the wearable devices that can, as I said earlier, make a delicate flower like me blush.
  • Meeting expectations: Do our behaviors map to our expectations? Are we expecting too much privacy for the benefits we get from obvious data collection? Or are we simply dissatisfied with the user experience we get for “too much” data collection? Are we consistent with our privacy expectations across all devices, or do we allow our thermostat to collect data on whether we’re home or away without even thinking about it but not our smart bras? Is one ecosystem actually “safer” than the other? And if you are a wearable device provider, how do you unravel all these potentially conflicting mysteries without a smart wig?

Finally, when used in the enterprise, we must remember that protecting our intellectual property is just as important as protecting personal information. Are trade secrets being accessed by wearable devices? If so, how? Are they being transported elsewhere? How does the entire device ecosystem manage data, from the device itself, to my phone, to the app, to my computer, to the provider, to the analytics mechanism, to the reports back to me in email?

Phew! I need to take a break for a nap that I will track, but only after a calming respite with a Ruby Jewel ice cream sandwich that I will not track. Inspiring coaches or naughty toddlers? Without a privacy chaperone and some security discipline, wearable devices can be both.

*The views expressed herein are my own and originate from my affection for toddlers and wearable devices that help keep me fit.

photo credit: ceart99 via photopin cc

1 Comment

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  • comment Julie • Sep 4, 2014
    Excellent points, with a sense of humor.  I love it!  And all questions with few answers...which is appropriate given the focus on toddlers.  But seriously, we need to keep our eyes on these wearables and where they are headed.  Beware "TMI."