The dark side of wearable technology

An update on my talk in Boston, Will advancing technology make doctors unemployed?. 

It's confirmed for Fri April 11th at 12pm. The format will be a lunchtime session, with time for questions, and tickets are free. I believe there are still a few tickets available. Big thanks to Maggie Delano, Joshua Kotfila & Hack Reduce for helping me make this event a reality!

So, Wearable Technology, we are hearing more and more about it in 2014. New research is forecasting that wearable tech will become even more popular than tablets. Our lives will change, our health will improve, and generally it's simply amazing, right? The use of Google Glass in Houston to allow sick kids to virtually visit the zoo is one of the wonderful applications I've seen. Today, the headline in the local newspaper in Boston was about a local hospital that is the 1st hospital in the USA to employ Google Glass in everyday medical care, expanding it's use across the entire Emergency department.

However, my views on wearable technology have been challenged recently, which prompted me to write this blog. There is a dark side to this technology, and it's fascinating to see the headlines touting the benefits but not always mentioning the risks.

I was invited to speak at an event in London, hosted by NESTA in March 2014. The event was titled, Data, health and me: the future of people-powered healthcare , and I shared my research on the emergence of personal data marketplaces & the future scenario where patients can profit from selling their health data which has been collected using wearable technology. My research has also been cited in the recent report, Refilling the Innovator's Prescription: The new wave of medtech, produced by NESTA & Silicon Valley comes to UK,  

There is a great Storify summarising my talk, as well as the talks by the other 3 speakers.

One of the exercises we were set, was to examine a possible future in the year 2024, where it's so lucrative for patients to sell their health data, that they can use wearable technology to 'amplify' their illness or even perhaps give themselves an ilness? It sounds preposterous, but look at what happens today in India. Deliberately maiming children to increase profit from begging. As healthcare costs continue to spiral, OUR personal health data, will only become MORE valuable in the future.  

The discussion in our group was thought provoking, as our small group discussed the moral, social, legal, & cultural implications. How would a doctor know that your illness occurred naturally or you used wearable technology to give yourself the illness? What circumstances would compel healthy people to do this? Would it be the poorest sections of society who realised one of the few assets they have is their health data? Would there a black market in 'patches' that when applied to the skin would give you diabetes? All of this really made me think again about the concept of selling our health data to governments, pharmaceuticals & health insurers. It's not that simple as I originally anticipated, and I'd welcome comments from readers on the intersection of wearable tech, personal health data and these new marketplaces. Kudos to Jessica Bland & Cassie Robinson for hosting & curating this event. There is a great video with soundbites from participants, definitely worth watching. Incidentally, on the same day, there was an event in New York, on the Social, Cultural & Ethical Dimensions of “Big Data." I'm proud that the UK is not lagging behind the US when it comes to thinking about the future.

I came across a Google Hangout from an event in New York, discussing Augmented Reality & Privacy in the future. Featuring John C Havens, Dawn Jutla, and Jules Polonetsky, it was an inspiring 1 hour. Again, speakers who made me rethink my beliefs, assumptions and attitudes towards wearable technology with their sharp insights.

Think about the use of Google Glass in the Boston hospital. When rushed out of the ambulance into the ER room, are you really going to be in a position to ask where your face or voice data may be going, and who has access to it?

It's scary enough to consider these questions when thinking of our own privacy & security, but even more frightening when thinking how wearable technology could be used to do harm to our children? Fast forward 5 or 10 years, and if most kids are given wearable technology so that their parents, teachers & doctors can monitor their health and movements in real-time, are we considering that these data are also of interest to criminals? Children may be warned not just to avoid talking to strangers, but to avoid strangers with laptops sitting next to them on a train as their personal data may be being hacked!

An article this week reports how "Companies are ignoring serious security issues in their rush to release next-generation wearable devices, according to Symantec."

There are other risks associated with the expansion of wearable tech in our lives, but I've highlighted just a couple of scenarios that warrant further thought. It's important that we find a balance between creating conditions that encourage entrepreneurs to take the risks to experiment with these new ideas, but at the same time, we can't let our enthusiasm for new shiny gadgets blind us from discussing how we govern use of this (or any) technology in society.

I don't know if we have the answers, as we are not even confident in defining the questions. However, the wearable technology market is evolving at such a rapid pace, it's critical that we take time out to both, ask those questions, and answer them. Without that pause, we run the risk of society eagerly adopting and evangelising these products without pausing to consider the ramifications on different members of our communities.

If you are in Boston this week, and can't attend my talk on Friday, I'd definitely like to connect, especially if you're a wearable tech startup.  

[Disclosure: I have no commercial ties with the companies/individuals mentioned]

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