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Introducing…wearable technology

June 2013

With the exponential rise of smart devices in recent years, the powerful combination of computing technology and internet connectivity has moved from our offices and homes to our bags and pockets. Now, experts are predicting that devices that can be worn on the body, or even inside the body, will be the next major step in this trend towards more pervasive or even 'ubiquitous' computing – the idea that computing technology and the internet will be accessible anywhere as an integrated part of our environment.  

These new devices hark back to the calculator wristwatches of the 1980s and are akin to Bluetooth mobile or audio headsets but are usually defined by their greater functionality and internet connectivity. They often operate in partnership with a smartphone which acts as the internet hub for the device and powers related apps although this may change as new, more sophisticated, devices emerge. There are other devices or technologies – such as e-textiles – which can be grouped in the wearable technology category, but which may not use internet connectivity. As connectivity is generally the means by which privacy implications regarding wearable technology arise, they aren’t covered in this article.

Heartbeat monitorYou may have come across wearable technology in the form of fitness and health monitoring devices, such as Fitbit, Nike+ and Jawbone UP which can track the wearer’s activity and movement and have been available for some time. You may have read about Google Glass in the news: these prototype smart glasses which can take videos or photos and project information from the internet into the right eye of the wearer via a tiny display, are generating a huge amount of buzz amongst developers, tech enthusiasts and related media. Other subcategories of wearable technology include smart watches, wearable cameras, video glasses, people-tracking devices and smart clothing.

Wearable technology is still at an 'early adopter' stage in terms of public and commercial use. For example, Google Glass was only recently released to a limited number of developers and enthusiasts and is rumoured for general release at the end of 2013 or in early 2014. However, concerns are already being voiced about the privacy implications of this technology category.

By their very design, many of these wearable devices can capture a great deal of personal data about the wearer and – in the case of Google Glass, for instance – individuals in the vicinity of the wearer. Google Glass can capture both video and audio with the potential to take photos, shoot video and record conversations of anyone near the wearer, to upload the content to Google's servers and, potentially, to share that data with anyone via the internet (e.g. via email or social media).

A small red light on the Google Glass eyepiece indicates to the public that the wearer is making an audio-visual recording. Yet those in the vicinity of the wearer who are unfamiliar with what this light signifies may not be aware that they are being captured in this way and have no chance to regulate their behaviour (e.g. by moving out of range of the device, or stopping private conversations). And even if they are aware of the device and its functionality, they may not be able to avoid being captured (e.g. if they are stuck next to the wearer on a crowded train). 

Privacy campaigners (such as the Stop the Cyborgs movement) have criticised this aspect of the technology, highlighting that surreptitious footage and sound recordings can be uploaded to the cloud and used and distributed without the subjects' knowledge or consent. A private argument or your child's meltdown in the supermarket could appear on YouTube or Facebook without you even being aware that these incidents were being recorded.

Ipad on notebookThis is already possible using smartphones and tablets but the issue is seen as one of scale: for although ubiquitous, smart devices are relatively easy to spot as they need to be held in the direction of the subject and operated by the user, whereas Google Glass is the same position in record or non-record mode and can operate on voice command or with a tilt of the head. We may also be caught on CCTV many times a day, but CCTV cameras are fixed at a certain height and do not usually record sound, whereas Google Glass moves with the wearer and is seen as potentially more covert.

The capacity of this technology to turn the public into paparazzi may be of particular concern to celebrities. Parents may also be concerned, for obvious reasons.

Such privacy fears have led some cafes and other businesses in the United States to ban Google Glass – even before the devices are generally available – from their premises, in a similar way that swimming pools, nurseries and others have banned smartphone use in the UK in order to protect children.  

Potential future developments of wearable technology seem unlikely to dampen privacy concerns. On the contrary, such concerns are likely to deepen when, for example, smartglass technology becomes modular and can be attached to prescription glasses - and therefore become harder to spot - or even be inserted directly onto the eyeball as contact lenses. Further, smartglass wearers may be able to use facial recognition software (which is already in development) to identify people in their vicinity even if the wearer doesn’t know them. This would raise a host of privacy issues for the person being identified – if, for example, their identity and location are logged by the technology provider, whether they like it or not.

It remains to be seen whether businesses seize on smart glasses as another means of monitoring their premises but this subcategory of wearable technology may be an attractive prospect. Security guards wearing smart glasses while patrolling grounds could share footage of any intruders in real time without having to wait to trawl through hours of CCTV tape. The use of wearable technology in this manner and other ways by public and private sector organisations, raises a host of legal issues, some of which are discussed elsewhere on this site.

As well as privacy issues in relation to the general public, personal data about the wearer of such devices gives rise to other data protection issues. For example, certain health and fitness gadgets can have GPS location functionality and can capture a huge amount of data over time about a person's location, activity and even health. This personal data may then be uploaded into the cloud and analysed by the technology provider. In the EU, this is fine provided that the technology provider is being transparent about how the data is being used, shared and transferred, the wearer has given informed consent about what is being done with their data, and the provider has put in place adequate security measures to protect it. Whether this happens in practice is another matter.

Privacy definitionIt’s important to remember that, although wearable technology may very well be the ‘Next Big Thing’, this outcome is by no means certain. Some of the privacy issues outlined above are, therefore, theoretical, and may remain that way if this category does not become as popular as many predict. As the technology becomes more prevalent in the near-term, however, social norms are likely to help regulate the use of certain wearable technology such as smart glasses until the (notoriously slow) law catches up. For example, ‘Google Glass etiquette’ is currently a hotly debated topic in digital media. The intensity of this debate underlines the importance of the privacy issues – theoretical or real – raised by this and other wearable technology.

If you have any questions on this article or would like to propose a subject to be addressed by the Global Data Hub please contact us.

Louise Taylor

Louise Taylor      

Louise looks at the rise of wearable technology and some of the privacy concerns that are being raised.

"…experts are predicting that devices that can be worn on the body, or even inside the body, will be the next major step in a trend towards more pervasive or even 'ubiquitous' computing…"