By Pavan Reddy, MEng ’23 (ME)This op-ed is part of a series from E295: Communications for Engineering Leaders. In this course, Master of Engineering students were challenged to communicate a topic they found interesting to a broad audience of technical and non-technical readers. As an opinion piece, the views shared here are neither an expression of nor endorsed by UC Berkeley or the Fung Institute. During a casual meeting, I hear my friend get a notification on his watch. He instantly stood up and startled everyone at the table. When questioned about his action, he simply replied with a laugh: “My watch said stand up for a minute to meet my stand goal, so I did.” While this seemed funny at the moment, smartwatches have not just pushed people to become more active but have had a great impact in doing so. The smartwatch industry has seen a mountain of growth over the last decade and is estimated to grow to approximately $156 billion by 2030 (Guirdham 2021). With greater public concern about individual health, this trend has increased the number of fitness wearables in the market (“Physical Activity” 2022). Having a smartwatch has become a common commodity of purchase, but one must question whether they benefit people’s health and fitness. (Northwest Primary Care 2021; Chen and Kim 2020) Yes, but at what cost? ‘PRIVACY!’ All these devices are connected to the internet of things (IoT). Once the number of devices increases, the amount of data collected also increases (Lamensch 2021). This allows companies to store, analyze, test, and create trends to provide a better result of service to their customers. But one breach into this network jeopardizes the data of everyone. During the pandemic, many governments used applications to conduct contact tracing (Rich 2021). Most of these applications were done through GPS tracking to measure body temperature and other vitals depending on the demography and the objective it was used for. All the data collected during this period were processed via third-party companies to analyze and revert to conclusions, about whether you were in contact with a COVID-19 patient or not. These are the main spots hackers tap into to steal user’s personal data (Kim et al. 2021). You might be thinking: “A common user has nothing to worry about. We can’t just stop using smartwatches worrying about these privacy problems.” Yet, there is a great possibility that smartwatch data can be stolen and misused by a hacker more easily than many people realize. Lately, many patients are walking up to hospitals with their smartwatch data. While it has been observed smartwatches reduces medical costs by performing preliminary analysis using data on users’ health, you are also selling your information for free to the organization’s server (WETSMAN 2021). When you share your trends of heart rate you are also sharing your activity which consists of your walking, eating, and sleeping trends. Here, the point to remember is that you are sharing more than you most likely know. Recently, congress passed a bill [S.500-Smartwatch Data Act,2021] pertaining to smartwatch data. It was passed to reflect the concerns of Google’s intent to acquire fitness tracker manufacturer Fitbit in 2020. The bill restricts sharing to unidentified sources and the commercialization of the smartwatch’s personal health data. However, it has no control over the installed application’s privacy control.
“Hence, it is important that users are aware of what is being shared from smartwatch or any wearable technology.”Despite this bill, data from smartwatches are still being used incorrectly. This is not a problem seen just in the smartwatch industry but also in many other emerging devices. Anything that can store data and share has the same privacy problems. So, what could be done to protect data? As of now, the only way is to be fully aware of data and data policies in regard to the device. Smartwatches are indeed positively affecting the health and fitness of people. They let you track, collect, and analyze your activities while motivating you to reach your goals. But blindly using the device without knowing how your data is utilized is the problem we need to be aware of and act on cautiously.
ReferencesChen, Li, and Mincheol Kim. 2020. “Impact of Smart Watch on Health Promoting Behaviors.” ICIC Express Letters, Part B: Applications 11 (2): 207–12. https://doi.org/10.24507/icicelb.11.02.207. Guirdham, Oliver. 2021. “Increasing Consumer Health Awareness Is Driving The Smart Watch Industry.” The Business Research Company. April 26, 2021. Kim, Minju, Yeonghun Shin, Wooyeon Jo, and Taeshik Shon. 2021. “Security Analysis of Smart Watch and Band Devices.” In 2021 International Conference on Computational Science and Computational Intelligence (CSCI), 655–58. IEEE. https://doi.org/10.1109/CSCI54926.2021.00172. Lamensch, Marie. 2021. “Putting Our Bodies Online: The Privacy Risks of Tech Wearables.” Centre for International Governance Innovation, August 11, 2021. northwest primary care. 2021. “5 Ways Smartwatches Could Improve Your Health.” January 26, 2021. https://www.nwpc.com/how-smartwatches-could-improve-your-health/. “Physical Activity.” 2022. World Health Organization. October 5, 2022. Rich, Jessica. 2021. “How Our Outdated Privacy Laws Doomed Contact-Tracing Apps.” Techtank, January 28, 2021. WETSMAN, NICOLE. 2021. “The Unexpected Health Impacts of Wearable Tech.” November 1, 2021. https://www.theverge.com/22733073/smartwatch-wearable-health-impact-doctors Connect with Pavan. Edited by Mary Tran.
Op-ed: Smartwatches: Privacy versus health and fitness was originally published in Berkeley Master of Engineering on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.