Wearable tech such as Google Glass, Galaxy Gear raises alarms for privacy advocates

by Hayley Tsukayama

The Washington Post.

Samsung’s Galaxy Gear smart watch is set to hit stores this week, part of a new wave of wearable technology that some fear could open a largely unregulated door into users’ private lives.

The 1.6-inch, $300 watch will be able to make calls, take pictures and send texts — collecting troves of data on users along the way.

The massive amount of data these new wearable devices stand to collect, the sensitive nature of the content and the uncertainty about how the information can be used have all raised concerns that consumers are being lured into uncharted territory that will compromise their privacy. Exacerbating the problem, some privacy advocates say, are recent Food and Drug Administration guidelines on medical apps that make no mention of privacy — making it unclear who should regulate health data pulled from wearable devices.

“The word ‘privacy’ does not appear in” the FDA’s rules, said Robert Gellman, a Washington-based privacy and information policy consultant. “This shows lots of things fall between the cracks.”

The Federal Trade Commission has said it will study the growth of Internet-connected sensors, which can appear in products as varied as watches, headsets, refrigerators and medicine bottle caps, and it has set a meeting for next month. But privacy advocates are concerned the wearable-tech industry is exploding while regulators take a back seat.

“The mobile device is a digital Trojan horse for privacy, since it enables marketers to know both our exact location and where we spend our time,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Digital Democracy. “We’ve entered a world where a consumer is identified, analyzed, tracked and can be targeted nearly 24-7.”

The possibilities for wearable tech are enormous. One can now wear a powerful computer in millimeters of fabric, a weightless monitor of one’s location, heartbeat, physical habits and moods. There is even a way to spy on your newborn; the Owlet smart sock allows parents to monitor their infant’s temperature — and even whether the baby has rolled over — with their smartphones.

Samsung is testing the waters with its smart watch. Google will begin selling its Glass headset next year, allowing users to snap pictures, record video and read messages on a screen hovering over one eye. Apple is widely expected to jump into the wearable market soon, analysts say. The company’s new iPhone 5s already includes a movement chip that can automatically detect, for example, if a user is walking or driving when it provides map instructions.

What really concerns privacy hawks is that consumers may not be aware of the scale of data being collected — or how it could be used. User data, for example, could end up with firms that customize credit card offers based on users’ shopping habits or insurance rates based on eating habits — all based on data collected through wearable devices, privacy advocates say.

An increase in Internet-connected devices “has the potential to exacerbate the power imbalance between consumers and the companies with which they conduct business,” the Electronic Privacy Information Center said in a filing to the FTC. “Information is power, and smart devices will provide much more information about consumers’ behavior to companies than has been traditionally available.”