SciTech

Wearable technology takes over data, privacy, lives

Credit: Paola Mathus/ Credit: Paola Mathus/

Wearable technology adds a level of convenience to life which people have never had before. Objects like Fitbits and smartwatches allow people to have all the computing power packed into smartphones and laptops without ever having to reach into their pockets. This advantage can even extend beyond wearables. Companies like John Dewere have smart tractors that collect data from a farmer’s daily activities. Such objects combined are called the “Internet of Things,” (IoT) - the network of everyday objects with internet connectivity.

However, the IoT comes at a cost. A Fitbit is able to track a user’s location and other portable technologies can track things like search history. This transfer of data comes with some risks to users that are not immediately obvious. Other technology becomes so invasive or necessary that we either ignore or cannot react to potential hazards.One of the first things that always gets mentioned when our ubiquitous technology comes up is that we are losing our humanity to the tech. This concern haunts a lot of people but it never really exits the realm of sleepover philosophy.

Maybe smartphones are slowly eating away at our free will, but they also create so many possibilities that they completely overwhelm that sentiment. Our technology doesn’t control us, we control our technology and the tool becomes a constant in our lives. Whether or not this creates some sort of murkiness where we end and where the phone begins is not a major concern in the continued creation and use of internet connected objects. A more pressing concern is how much power over our daily activities we are relinquishing to companies.

The IoT relies on internet connectivity, meaning it relies on the support of its applications. When Nest, an Alphabet subsidiary, shut down its smarthome hub, the object became useless. This shows that companies have the power to discontinue a network reliant device immediately, but they can also take individual users off of a device. If a company does not like how you use their product, they can now take it away from you. If you sit on a chair backwards, you’re using it wrong, but the chair company cannot restrict your access. This power gives companies a lot of influence over exactly how their product is used which could have unforeseen consequences.

Furthermore, data privacy could be a significant concern. Almost no one reads the terms of agreement when they begin to use a new piece of software. This causes problems now, but when the data you turn over becomes exponentially larger, there are more opportunities for this to be destructive. Also, the company begins to own data that you created, but don’t have access to. Those aforementioned John Deere tractors collected data and sold it to third parties without the knowledge or consent of the farmers. The information might not have been personal, but the farmer put the labor into collecting that data and saw no return from its sale.

This doesn’t even consider the possibility of hacking. If someone steals your IoT data with malicious intent, it could open everything from your bank account to your house to attacks. Even items like pacemakers, which will kill people if they fail to operate reliably and correctly, could be targeted by hackers. The IoT could be the most important technological development of our lives, but we have to be careful going forward to make sure that it is a force for good and not a necessity that leaves us vulnerable.

Student Pugwash is a non-advocacy, educational organization that discusses the implications of science. This article is a summary of last week’s discussion on wearable technology and how it can affect data and privacy.