The (New) Wild West: Regulating Wearable Tech

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The (new) wild west of navigating and regulating wearable tech and even “Google ogling” is currently at the forefront of discussions surrounding fashion and technology. From Ralph Lauren’s Polo smartshirts with biometric tracking capabilities to the recent release of the Apple Watch, the production and popularity of wearable technology is on the rise. But with the growing attention and werable tech’s diverse capabilities -such as monitoring and data collection, critics and consumers have begun to question their vulnerability to these products with regards to their health and privacy.

Take for example a recent New York Times article that suggests that susceptibility: “We have long suspected that cellphones, which give off low levels of radiation, could lead to brain tumors, cancer, disturbed blood rhythms and other health problems if held too close to the body for extended periods. Yet here we are in 2015, with companies like Apple and Samsung encouraging us to buy gadgets that we should attach to our bodies all day long.”

Washington Post writer Hayley Tsukayama looks at the issue from a different angle and cites a number of concerns regarding the information being collected by smart gadgets.

“What really concerns privacy hawks, however, 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,” says Tsukayama.

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In response to this concern Google used the defense that the information gathered through gadgets such as the Apple Watch, is the same information being accessed on cellphones and the only thing that has changed is the literal form of the device.
Other companies developing similar products such as Samsung also agreed that users have nothing to fear, as this concept is not entirely new.
“Users should not be concerned, because the data collected by the watch are covered under existing privacy policies,” says Ryan Bidan, Samsung’s Director of Product Marketing.
Generally this information is already regulated and protected by privacy policies intended to conceal personal information from companies that use consumer information to conduct business.
“This technology is still evolving really rapidly, As more sensors and devices show up on the market, I imagine it would be of more importance for the government to step in, says Bidan.

Which is exactly what the government is doing.

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Earlier this year, the FDA published a draft guidance note intended to monitor the production of any technology that could pose a threat to the user’s safety. According to Tech Times, these threats were described as “Any device that is “invasive.” The guidance note also listed that “risks from lasers, radiation exposure, or implants, would be subject to approval and regulation.”

In response to the FDA’s guidance note, Engadget jokes, “As far as it’s concerned, ‘general wellness devices,’ i.e. watches that vaguely encourage people to get fitter, aren’t any sort of risk to the public. This means that your Fitbit is okay to tell you to go for a walk, your Aura can coach your sleeping and Lumosity can pretend to make you smarter without any worries. Mostly the FDA is concerned with risk, and there isn’t much risk if your smartphone tells you to lay off the burgers one every now and again.”
Although the FDA’s regulations were written to address production of all wearable technology, these regulations are not necessarily affecting the devices created to monitor “general wellness” but instead may be addressing developers who believe that the cross between wearable technology and health will be an innovative one. For wellness tracking or medical treatment, the question lies in the ethics of a device that can physically cure a person and documenting all of one’s information.

To what extent we should continue to put our well-being in the hands of technology is another question entirely.

Image: Oliur Rahman, Agnieszka Bladzik