Wearable tech is cool, but who’s watching the iWatch?

February 14, 2013

Speculation that Apple is developing a new wristwatch has sparked a lot of excitement about the potential for another piece of wearable technology.

The watch, tech watchers say, could be integrated with your smartphone, providing another easy avenue for tracking the minute details of your life in a slick, stylish package.

Wearable technology is sweeping the tech world and bringing with it new waves of privacy concerns.

Last year, Google unveiled high-tech eyeglasses, Google Glass, that can take video and photographs. Last month’s Consumer Electronics Show included exhibits about gadgets that could tell people how quickly they’re eating.

“We have been seeing this progression of concerns around mobile and mobile tracking in particular, which comes up with any sort of device that you carry with you,” said Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Tien said that consumers should be thinking about what kind of data their smart devices are collecting, where and how long that data is being stored and who else might have access to it.

Wearable gadgets certainly bring those concerns to the forefront, since they’re literally attached to consumers. But all sorts of smart gadgets are already busy collecting data to be analyzed by their manufacturers — often for useful reasons, but almost always in the background. Think about every time have agreed to send “diagnostic data” and you may realize exactly how much data is streaming out of your pocket.

Consumers got another reminder of that this week. Tesla announced, in the wake of a bad New York Times review, that its press cars are equipped with tracking sensors that can tell the company a number of things about how the cars work. The feature provides the company with diagnostic information about things such as the car’s charge level, its speed, and information about its climate control systems.

When asked about the data collection, Tesla said that it only uses the logs when there are technical issues.

“We are very sensitive to privacy and can access the press car logs to better understand or troubleshoot any issues that a reporter might experience,” said Tesla spokeswoman Shanna Hendriks when contacted by The Post. “In fact, several times we have had reporters ask us for this data so they can understand Model S better while they are testing and reviewing it.”

She did not immediately respond when asked if the tracking logs are present in all vehicles, but the company’s chief executive said in a Twitter update that regular customers can ask for the data to be turned on with “explicit written permission.”

Consumers shouldn’t necessarily be spooked by this fact. In many cases, as with Tesla, companies collect the information to troubleshoot or, as with many kinds of software, to catch performance problems. In many cases, companies work to strip identifying information out of the data; a privacy flap isn’t in their best interest either, if they want to avoid bad publicity or even government action.

But with each technology data advance, average folks have to remember to police their own privacy. Tien noted that the need for transparency about data use will only grow as wearable gadgets — particularly those that measure health information — continue to gain popularity, and companies have to hammer out policies explaining how they use that data.

“From a consumer and user perspective that sounds great,” he said. “People should be able to monitor and analyze what they’re doing and what their bodies are doing, but that raises the question of who else is looking at that data.”

Related stories:

FTC offers mobile privacy guidelines, settles with Path on child privacy breach, improper data mining

Politicians, privacy advocates weigh in on cybersecurity exec order

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Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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