Wearable Devices Raise Privacy Concerns

Posted April 25th, 2014 at 2:36 pm (UTC-4)
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Wearable devices such as Fitbit or Google Glass are raising concerns over their data recording features.

And while some are finding a niche in sports, health and other professional sectors, privacy advocates say there are serious implications associated with many of these devices that should have been taken into account during their development.

“Some of this technology is a solution in search of a problem that might not exist,” said John Simpson, Privacy Project Director at California-based Consumer Watchdog, a group concerned about privacy implications of wearable devices, particularly Google Glass’ image and videotaping features.

Simpson called Google Glass “a stalker’s dream come true.” He said anyone wearing the glasses can tape everything a person using a bank’s ATM, for example, is doing without his or her knowledge, whereas “if somebody is taking a picture of you with a smartphone, it’s pretty obviously being held up.”

With wearable devices like Glass, he said “there’s no way knowing whether you are being filmed on videos or recordings.”

“And we think that’s a very – on the face of it – privacy-invasive sort of thing,” he said.

Google says a light comes on that others see when Glass is recording and takes issue with some of the claims made about Glass on its top 10 Google Glass myths site:

“The Glass screen is off by default. Video recording on Glass is set to last 10 seconds. People can record for longer, but Glass isn’t designed for or even capable of always-on recording [the battery won’t last longer than 45 minutes before it needs to be charged].”

Nevertheless, the ability of some wearable devices like Fitbit to keep track of user information on-the-move is a concern for Julia Horowitz, the consumer protection counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

The privacy of user information is the responsibility of gadget manufacturers, Horowitz said.

And regardless of what the technological tools might look like, she said the legal world they are operating in is still the same.

So if something like Google Glass is being used in a medical context like in an operating theater, “then you are invoking all the rules that are laid out in HIPPAA, which is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act,” she said.

Simpson said wearable devices might be useful for hands-free multitasking and might even save lives.

But he stresses that hospitals using Google Glass, for example, have reconfigured the device to run only on their secure networks to protect patient information.

“That kind of privacy protection has to be built in,” he said, not just for the health sector, but for average consumers as well.

“The different shapes the technology takes,” Horowitz said, should not be allowed to influence people’s views on what their privacy system should look like.

She says it is less useful to see new technologies as defining privacy and data security rules “and more useful to think about the world of privacy and data security that we want … and make sure that the technology comports to that world rather than the other way around.”

As the wearable tech market expands, advertisers are sure to follow. Horowitz said privacy rules need to be continuously updated to cope with advertisers exploiting users’ behavior data to target them with native ads that look more like posts from friends than advertisements.

“An app or a technology that cannot collect all kinds of data from you and about you would not be able to feed that information to an advertiser,” she said. “And then ads would either start to look like the kind of generic spam that we saw in the ’90’s, or would … disappear.”

Turning back the clock as wearable devices gain momentum seems unlikely, which is why Simpson says steps need to be taken to safeguard privacy.

“There is a concept that’s known as Privacy by Design, which means that as you develop the technology, people who are concerned about some of the privacy issues …. consider these privacy implications as it is being developed,” he said.

Recognizing privacy issues as the technology is taking shape allows manufacturers to address the impact even if that means “that you wouldn’t do certain things with a device that was technologically capable of doing,” such as facial recognition, which Simpson considers to be invasive.

Facial recognition, already being used by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation will likely become more prevalent in the future.

It might be that wearable devices are heralding a brave new world altogether. But Simpson says “we need to … keep up our core values and our humanity and not let machines run the day.”

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

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