You’re at the local watering hole, enjoying a pint after work with some colleagues, when someone snaps your picture from across the room without your knowledge. Next thing you know, you’re receiving harassing messages from a disgruntled spouse, convinced that you were trying to put the moves on their loved one.
Or maybe you’re using a wireless fitness tracker, and decide to record your bedroom activities as part of your daily workout – and the information is automatically shared with all of your Facebook friends and Twitter followers, thanks to the device’s share settings. These are just a few real-life examples of how individuals’ privacy has been compromised thanks to wearable technology. And with new devices poised to hit the market in the near future – including Google Glass, the much-talked about new system from Google – there’s growing concern about how much of our private lives will become available for public consumption, and how we can protect ourselves from letting the world see everything we’re doing.
Tiny Devices, Big Data
Google Glass is being touted as the next great technological innovation, a means for users to capture real-time images of what they see in front of them or access information with a simple voice command. The glasses, which resemble futuristic sunglasses, are equipped with the capability to capture hours of streaming video, still images, or even make contact with other people who can see, in real-time, what’s happening in front of you.
While the technology is certainly intriguing – who hasn’t wanted to simply ask a question and have the answer literally appear before their eyes – it has privacy advocates, including Congress and former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, worried about the potential for data to fall into the wrong hands or for it to be misused or used without permission.
Unlike a traditional computer, wearable devices like Google Glass are not equipped with significant storage capacity. Instead, data that’s collected, including videos and photos, are stored within the cloud infrastructure. The servers that house this data have powerful back-end analytical capacities, meaning that it’s possible for the data to be mined for information. The problem is that it’s still not clear who owns that data: the person collecting it with their wearable device, or the device manufacturer who is storing the data.
How the collected data will be used is also raising questions. Such data mining is useful in certain situations, such as risk management and network security, but it’s possible that the data collected via these wearable devices could be mined for information and used for commercial purposes, or used by law enforcement as part of criminal investigations.
Proponents of wearable technology dismiss the concerns, noting that users will have to agree to terms of service that will outline who owns the data, how it will be used and how long it will be kept. However, problems arise when you realize that many devices will capture people who have not agreed to the terms of service. For example, when you’re capturing your friends telling jokes in the bar, there’s a good chance that you’ll capture other people in the background, who have not agreed to be filmed or to have their images stored in your account.
Data storage and use are not the only privacy concerns that have been raised by wearable technology. Just the idea of being captured on a digital recording without giving permission, and the likelihood of that image being shared, has some people concerned. However, Google notes that the design of Google Glass makes it very easy to determine whether you are being filmed. They note that the device features an indicator light showing that it’s in use, and that someone must be looking at you to take video – and chances are, you’ll notice someone staring at you while wearing a device that’s obviously recording and be able to ask them to stop.
Some experts point out that it’s virtually impossible to remain completely anonymous in today’s society, and that most of us are filmed every day; consider store security cameras or traffic cameras, for example, However, if you want to maintain your privacy when it comes to wearable technology, it’s best to completely read and understand the terms of service, particularly how your data will be used and shared. If the device includes privacy controls (such as the FitBit health and fitness monitor) it’s up to you to configure the settings to share as much or as little information as you wish.
The bottom line to wearable technology is that it is coming and will bring with it some serious privacy concerns. How those concerns will be addressed remains to be seen (click here to see how deep discovery might help protect the data from prying eyes), but it’s up to consumers to stay informed and take steps to protect themselves.
Image of woman with binoculars by imagerymajestic from freedigitalphotos.net
Image of people with phones by Dave Lawler from Flickr Creative Commons