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Wearable devices raise privacy issues

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In Steven Spielberg’s [*Minority Report*], technology in the year 2054 is everywhere. Every inch of glass is an LCD screen, watches have been replaced with sensors, and screens can be maneuvered by a flick of the wrist. In the movie, not only is technology on the body, but technology is a large part of a person’s self-definition.

Although society has not reached this level of technological sophistication, we have breached the bubble of wearable technology. Google Glass, the Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch, and the Pebble smartwatch are the most prominent gadgets that belong to the first generation of wearable technologies.

There are numerous perks that come with the integration of new technologies in our daily lives and movements. Cloud computing operator Rackspace found in a recent study that 82 percent of the Americans who have tried wearable technologies believe that the technologies would enhance their lives. There is one big downside: the many privacy issues that spring out of the widespread use of wearable technology.

A person could cyberstalk someone across a café by looking up people who have checked into Starbucks recently. Facebook could then take a note that the stalker is looking at that person. Google could know what the stalker is looking at and where the stalker is going because the stalker is wearing Google Glass; yet the person across the café would not see a thing. Rackspace reports that 53 percent of Americans who don’t wear technology feel that wearable devices raise some sort of privacy issue. Only 8 percent said wearing Google Glass would be okay in any situation. The scary thing is, we can’t see anything that occurs on the other side of the computer chip. It’s easy to see if that person across the café took a picture, but it’s not so simple to see where that information is going. Google could be taking all of the data stored within a phone or web browser. And this blindness with which people have been using technology isn’t recent. Certainly, iPhones and Google Glass were not the initial steps into the unknown, where the data of consumers could be logged and categorized for various uses by technology firms. The everyday consumer has been blind for a long time.

Blindness hasn’t exactly hurt consumers, but it has helped some technology giants fill buckets of revenue through the study of information.

How do they use information to increase revenue? Google presents a prime example. Steven Levy of Wired Magazine wrote an article on Google’s system of advertisements, using the term “Googlenomics.” This term refers to Google’s algorithms that auction off advertisements for individual users based on previous searches. The advertisements become customized for users, which is useful for Google and users. Google gets a ton of money from advertisers while users get more relevant ads. Levy writes, “Selling ads doesn’t just generate profits, it also generates torrents of data about users’ tastes and habits, data that Google then sifts and processes in order to predict future consumer behavior ... and sell more ads.” The more traffic Google receives, the more data it analyzes and the more advertisements it displays. In a way, Google dehumanizes people by monetizing them.

More than ever, data is up for grabs for technology companies. After the rise of Googlenomics in 2002, Facebook became a huge social network that now connects billions of people. Facebook doesn’t really need an algorithm to sort through user information because the information is already available on each person’s profile. Facebook could do so much more than Google, and with the rise of wearable technology, Facebook could develop programs that literally shadow people in their daily lives.

Google’s rather aged brand of revenue generation then points toward a concept that has gathered public attention relatively recently: big data, or data amounts so large that they cannot be processed simply. This is where the new concept of wearable technologies blends with the old concept of Googlenomics. Big data is made possible by the sheer volume of people using the Internet and the relative cheapness of hardware and software where people can store data. A recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine points to uses of big data, such as reducing the need for random sampling in statistics — sample sizes effectively become everyone who is plugged into a device.

Big data is the child of technological advances, the rise of social networking, and general Internet use.

Where does that leave us? For starters, the general idea of privacy has changed. We no longer live in a world where we can’t be part of the system. We can’t see who’s looking at our information because it’s not confined to our own devices. That information is in the cloud or other storage services; it is somewhere else ­­­— probably on one of Google’s many servers. It is up to us, the users and the used, whether the advantages of using wearable technology and big data outweigh the baggage that comes along.