Here’s looking at you – how might policy concerns hold back the rise in wearable tech?
By Victoria Read
Here’s looking at you – how might policy concerns hold back the rise in wearable tech?
20 Feb 2015 - Big Data

As someone whose partner was given a Jawbone activity tracking wristband for Christmas, I’ve had to get used to the analysis of deep sleep data over breakfast each morning. It seems likely that I am not the only one, given that 2014 was the year that wearable tech went mainstream.

Google Glass, a much trumpeted wearable computer in the form of glasses, may have taken a break while Google works on future versions of gadget, but other devices are still coming thick and fast, and the worldwide market for wearable devices is predicted to grow from a current $1.6 billion to $5 billion, according to Gartner.

As Google Glass exits stage left, in enters Oculus Rift stage right. The virtual reality headset is already making waves despite not yet being available to the general public. It may look like an unwieldy pair of scuba-diving goggles, but the appeal of being able to enter an immersive 3D experience is clear, and its potential goes far beyond gaming, perhaps explaining why Facebook recently bought the company for $2bn. As Mark Zuckerberg put it: “This is just the start. Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting a doctor face-to-face – just by putting on goggles in your home.”

Another high profile example of wearable tech is the Apple Watch, with its ability to record and share your heartbeat with other Apple Watch wearers, act as a remote control for iTunes and Apple TV, perform the usual activity app functions (record steps taken, heart rate and so on), as well as – lo and behold – tell the time. And its not just headsets, activity trackers and smart watches hitting the consumer market, there’s interactive motorbike helmets, jumpers that allow you to post social network updates with the flick of a sleeve and transferable tattoos that unlock your smartphone.

In addition to feeding gadget-hungry consumers, wearable tech is being associated with numerous personal, commercial and societal benefits. Apple CEO Tim Cook recently caused controversy by claiming that the Apple Watch can help tackle inactivity, which he described as “the new cancer”, but the potential healthcare applications are indeed wide-scale, from providing ways for medical and family support services to be delivered across vast distances to offering doctors real time access to health records. Other potential uses are almost endless: hands-free devices improving productivity and safety for in-field technicians, facial recognition applications for police and security professionals and contact-less purchasing in retail settings.

If as few as a quarter of applications being proposed come to fruition, then its not too far fetched to say that wearable technology may be as commonplace as mobile phones at some point in the future. One aspect holding back wearables’ progress, however, is the policy-related concerns around them, the majority relating to data protection and privacy. The main question isn’t whether wearables will be able to track us and record us – almost all devices have some element of data capture – it’s how companies choose to manage and use that data, the way the public responds to that usage and the extent to which new practices interface with current data protection laws and regulations.

There are issues, for example, around what companies do with the data they are collecting: do privacy terms, which may be loosely worded and largely ignored by users, allow data to be shared with or sold to third parties? How do users feel about the fact that their fitness profile may be shared with insurance companies, for example? And whose data is it anyway?

Concerns also centre on data security, with high profile breaches such as the iCloud celebrity photo hack providing a wake up call to many about how vulnerable their sensitive personal data can be in the cloud. Companies’ privacy policies may reassure us that they are committed to protecting our data, but what does that really mean?  Do they encrypt the information? Do they review who has access to it? And where do companies’ responsibilities begin and end, when users may not always take advantage of the privacy tools on offer?

There are questions too for employers and employees, with devices’ recording and tracking abilities raising a host of ethical and confidentiality concerns. Employers will need to put in place recording and videoing policies and employees will need to reflect on how they feel about their every move possibly impacting on their performance review.

Most jurisdictions have enthusiastically backed the socio-economic potential of wearable tech, the UK government recently launching an innovation fund for wearable R&D, for example, but they are by no means unaware of the challenges these new devices are posing to existing legislation.

In June 2014, the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office issued guidance on how the UK’s data privacy laws apply, reminding people that while anyone using a wearable technology for their own purposes is unlikely to breach the Data Protection Act, the moment an organisation starts using data for anything other than personal use, they must process the information collected by these devices in compliance with the legislation.

In September 2014, the Article 29 Working Party – the EU’s data protection legal advisory body – published an opinion on how EU data protection law applies. The opinion issues some stark warnings on the risks of these “intrusive” and “vulnerable devices” – “unauthorised access to personal data”, “lacking sufficient security” and “unlawful surveillance” – before promoting a “a comprehensive set of practical recommendations” to help industry implement privacy and data laws and offer users the “highest possible guarantees” about safety of their data. The Group aims to keep this area under close observation.

So far no law has been changed to accommodate wearables, but new technology has a habit of pushing the boundaries and enforceability of existing laws and so this is certainly a policy area to watch carefully. Indeed 2015 has already seen two key regulators issuing reports that seek to understand future regulatory approaches to wearable technologies. The US’s Federal Trade Commission published a report on the Internet of Things in January, dismissing the introduction of new legislation as premature, while recommending the creation of good practice, perhaps through industry self-regulation. In the UK, Ofcom, in response to its 2014 consultation on the Internet of Things, published a paper, “Promoting investment and innovation in the Internet of Things”, which once again explores the potential for industry principles, sets itself the task of forming a better understanding of consumer attitudes and moots the prospect of a consumer education campaign about the benefits and risk associated with the technologies.

We should expect more to emerge from policy makers and regulators in the coming year, but the ball is also in industry’s court – developers and manufacturers will need to ensure they are aware of current data protection requirements, bake privacy safeguards into their products from the get go and be as open and transparent with their users as possible.

Photo Credit: Full Mascotas