Privacy Concerns Mount as Wearable Sensors Pop Up Everywhere

Some are worried that so much data is being generated that one day we'll all be able to know far too much about one another.

by Andrej Sokolow, Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH / December 17, 2014
A high-tech running shoe from Germany's Fraunhofer Institute evaluates running form in real time. Fraunhofer Institute

(TNS) -- If you pay attention, you'll quickly notice that everything - yourself included - is being watched very carefully these days, everywhere you go.

An umbrella reportedly under development flashes a light when rain is coming, because it keeps an eye on the forecast. You will soon he able to take pills with cameras built in so they can get a better look at your insides.

Already, smart running shoes can keep track of your workout by sensing how many times your feet have pounded the pavement.

But what will be happening with all this data? Some are worried that so much is being generated that one day we'll all be able to know far too much about one another.

Explosive growth is anticipated for demand and production of these tiny, networked sensors.

"You'll be surprised where all the wearable technology will pop up," says JP Gownder, a technical markets expert for market researcher Forrester. "There will be tons of experiments."

Gownder presented a study on wearable technology at the recent LeWeb internet conference in Paris.

Wearables "is a funny name," says David Rose, an expert in the field from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After all, he notes, one could argue that a mobile phone is wearable too. The designation just means technology one uses in close proximity to one's body, like a fitness armband or clothes impregnated with sensors.

"My shirt is currently streaming information about my physical data to the cloud via my iPhone," revealed Stephane Marceau, the head of French firm OMsignal, speaking in Paris. The start-up, which he helped found, delivers the platform and building blocks to clothing manufacturers so they can produce smart clothes.

"Not everyone wears watches or jewellery, but everyone wears clothes," notes Mareau, which is why he says his approach will always have an automatic trump card over companies that make networked watches, glasses or rings.

"In 2015, we'll see how the worlds of fashion and technology come together," he says with enthusiasm.

Rose says "wearables" is sometimes too abstract a term for items that can feel magical. And, just like in a fairy tale, there is a downside to these powerful items.

That's because the steady spread of sensors means more data is being accumulated all the time. Everything from blood pressure, to the time of day one typically leaves one's house to a person's standard bedtime to how many times one rolls over in bed - it's all potentially captured by this new, personal technology.

Some see the flood of information as a source of potential. Start-up Vivametrica plans to take anonymized data from fitness data and try to forecast cases of health problems like diabetes or heart disease.

Taking it even further, Sension - an app for Google Glass, the company's networked spectacles - can track 76 points on the face of a person being viewed with the glasses and put together an analysis of the subject's emotional well-being. The idea is that this could help workers in sales as they try to assess how customers feel. But how might the customers feel about such analysis?

Rose, an enthusiast, carries a camera that tracks his whole life, with two photos taken every minute. This allows him to review his whole life in a kind of stop-motion video.

Rose says he's learned a lot from the experience. But it's only really possible to benefit from such an attempt if it's possible to properly analyse the pictures. That's why he's the founder of start-up Ditto Labs, which analyses photographic content.

The company's Ditto software searches public pictures on Instagram and checks what recognizable features there are - whether those be bottles, jackets or everyday objects. This approach could reinvent online advertising, says Rose, with more potential for marketers to hide ads in more places.

But software developer Rafael Laguna, of Open X-Change, who was also at LeWeb, says such data gathering by companies can be dangerous, since information means power in the wired world.

"Absolute power eventually leads to abuse of power," he warns, noting that people who let others have access to their data will eventually lose control of it and have no idea what it is being used for.

He says more companies have to switch to open source services if they want to garner more trust from customers.

©2014 Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH (Hamburg, Germany)

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