SciTech

Paul Gilster: Wearable technology poses security concerns for consumers

In this photo taken Friday, July 26, 2013, Taylor Jones, principal partner at the web development company Whiteboard, demonstrates how to use Google Glass, a device which offers video recording, photographic, and internet access capabilities while worn like a pair of glasses, in their offices in Chattanooga, Tenn. Whiteboard was selected to beta test the device in Google's "If I had Glass" campaign after they tweeted that they would use the device to record video of daily life in rural Cambodia.
In this photo taken Friday, July 26, 2013, Taylor Jones, principal partner at the web development company Whiteboard, demonstrates how to use Google Glass, a device which offers video recording, photographic, and internet access capabilities while worn like a pair of glasses, in their offices in Chattanooga, Tenn. Whiteboard was selected to beta test the device in Google's "If I had Glass" campaign after they tweeted that they would use the device to record video of daily life in rural Cambodia. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Have you started wearing Google Glass around town while testing out all its snazzy features? Evidently not, to judge from what I’m seeing on eBay, where a check this morning showed prices in the $600 to $700 range. That’s a bit less than half of list price for a product that was relentlessly hyped when it came out in a test version costing $1500. The eyeglasses include not only a camera but a processor driving a tiny computer screen mounted to the frames.

Apparently the “geek” factor is a step too far for most consumers, even the cutting-edge crowd willing to work with experimental hardware. The Glass-adorned look a bit more like Star Trek’s the Borg than most people find comfortable. Reuters recently reported that nine of the sixteen makers of apps for the futuristic specs it surveyed have stopped working on their product or have abandoned it altogether. That’s an indication of a serious lack of market interest, though I hasten to note that big players like Facebook are still exploring a Google Glass app.

Security concerns

But aren’t we in the era of wearable tech? Sure, but as with any new technology, particularly during a paradigm shift as massive as this one is, we have to find out what works where. Various fitness bands are all over the place, so that people like me routinely track their daily step count. It’s easy, if you choose, to get a readout on calories burned, or for that matter on your blood pressure and heart-rate. Biometrics are a big deal that seems to be working into our smartphones, but wristbands and phones are easy to wear and largely out of sight.

Google Glass may be too intrusive for the average consumer, though I think its future in specialized business settings in manufacturing and medical care will ensure its survival. The larger picture is that between smartwatches and wristbands and soon to emerge new products, research firms like International Data Corporation are saying that wearables shipped will reach 19 million in 2014, triple 2013’s total, and swell to well over 100 million units by 2018.

While we sort out the market logistics, the real problem about wearables is sneaking up on us. It’s security, and all the things that can make the user of wearable technology vulnerable. Tracking your personal health is splendid, but a key question is where all that data winds up.

Need safeguards

I’d hate to see my relatively encouraging health stats wind up in the hands of an identity thief or used to send me still more torrents of spam. Finding out whether third-parties have access to information often means reading through privacy policies that most of us find as cryptic as raw computer code. The camera in Google Glass is presumably hackable by those with the skill set to do such things. Would you want your snapshots used to send you targeted advertising?

Because we live in the era of social media, we often install apps that have settings defaulting to sharing what we do, whether it’s our location or the book we’ve just read. As with smartphones, we have it in our power to shut down this problem by checking our settings, but I’m always amazed at how often people go with the defaults and don’t ask about their consequences.

The best outcome here is that wearables will eventually become integrated with our lives in the same way smartphones have, but with safeguards in place that make privacy paramount and controls easy to configure. But while this market shakes out, don’t take anything for granted with a new device until you’ve questioned the company’s privacy policy and verified that its product’s sharing settings don’t make you an unintentional star on Facebook. The market push from the likes of Google and Apple isn’t going to slow down. Choose these shiny new toys with care.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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