Where Is Your Wearable Data Going?

March 14, 2016

Smartwatches, FitBits, Google Glass, and other “wearable” devices are becoming increasingly popular as 2016 progresses. While we don’t know exactly how many Apple Watches have been sold, we know that many customers have purchased wearables from Apple, Pebble, Samsung, FitBit, and the other major players in the industry, with millions of units shipped to retailers around the world in the past year alone.
Currently, fitness and health wearables like FitBit are some of the most popular items. FitBit monitors the amount of steps and other exercise the wearer performs and provides detailed health information. Additionally, you can compare your own performance to that of other FitBit wearers, if you want to (and if both parties opt-in to that particular service). From an aesthetic point of view, FitBit has some of the more attractive products currently on the market, with Apple, Samsung and Pebble smartwatches still on the blocky side of things.
The ability to have this kind of tech power on your wrist is staggering – but it also presents some novel legal issues. Consider that as development and sales of these products progresses, there are going to be more microphones, cameras, GPS trackers, and other means of recording very personal information floating through the world on wrists, heads, and ears. For instance, what if companies have access to your workout habits through your FitBit? Many people are already broadcasting their preferences for products through their Google searches and Facebook posts, allowing those services to use targeted advertisements tailored for each individual. Could Reebok or Nike sell you socks and shoes from knowing how much running you do? Could Trek analyze your biking habits to sell you more gear? On the other side of the spectrum, could your health insurance company analyze your sleep and exercise data and raise your premiums if they don’t like what they see?
In the area of fitness, at least, most of the information your device records is only really pertinent to you. The FitBit only knows how much you’re running, but doesn’t know anything about your friends and coworkers. On the other hand, Google Glass(es) have a tiny camera that can record whatever the wearer sees. For instance, I participated in a laser tag tournament in Las Vegas in 2014 and one of the other competitors was wearing Google Glass. He recorded all of the matches that he was in, and nobody knew until the matches were over. While we didn’t mind, it could have easily been the case that somebody really preferred not to have themselves recorded in that fashion. Some people are more competitive or like to trash-talk in a casual competitive environment like that, and they might not want their behavior, harmless as it might be, to find its way to a future employer via YouTube. Imagine if you were involved in something a bit more sensitive, or were in an important hush-hush meeting with someone that was wearing a similar device. You have a vested privacy interest in knowing if people around you are recording audio or video of your life. The “background noise” problem is present here, too. The wearer might not know that you recorded something really important or sensitive.
It isn’t that this is a new concern, really – it’s just that the devices doing the recording are becoming more innocuous and more pervasive in our lives. If someone whips out a big video camera, you know that’s a video camera. If someone takes out a microphone, you can see it’s a microphone. You may not know, however, that everyone’s watch is now a microphone, and everyone’s glasses are now cameras, and all of your accessories have GPS trackers that can show someone else where you’ve been and how often you’re going and how fast you drove to get there.

“I swear I always drive the speed limit, your honor,” you say in a court proceeding. How is it then that your smartwatch appears to have been going significantly faster?

Companies and consumers alike need to be aware of the privacy and security issues they are facing or will soon face as this technology continues to develop and the data collected by wearables makes its way into the world. As intelligent consumers, we need to demand privacy options that keeps this kind of data away from people we don’t want to have it, and we need to remember to use the privacy options we have.