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As smartwatches gain traction, personal data privacy worries mount

Matt Hamblen | May 27, 2015
Companies could use wearables to track employees' fitness, or even their whereabouts.

Companies of all types are focused on using smartwatches and other wearables both for their employees and their customers. A survey of 500 business professionals conducted in March found that all were using or planning to implement wearable technology for workers and customers, and that 79% felt such devices would be strategic to their company's future success.

The survey, conducted by a division of Salesforce, predicted a tripling of growth for employee wearable use cases in the next two years, mainly to improve the customer experience. These include business analytics and alerts, but also an employee's biometric data.

For customer wearable tech, the survey found the biggest growth area will be in integrating mobile apps and location-sensing technology onto customer's wearable devices.

Location will not only be possible with GPS, which is found in some smartwatches already, but also through monitoring of indoor location, such as through the gates and doorways the user passes through, which can be activated via Bluetooth or other wireless technology available from a smartwatch.

Gownder noted in a separate Forrester report that location data could be used to show how often an employee is moving to work with peers in order to determine if he or she is hitting a manager's benchmarks for collaboration.

Forrester's own research tends to bolster Salesforce's survey. More than half of 3,104 global technology decision makers that Forrester surveyed last year said wearables are a critical, high or moderate priority for their companies.

Growing public concerns with privacy

Contrasted with the corporate interest in wearables is the public's growing concern over personal privacy. Recent surveys by data privacy management company Truste found that 92% of U.S. Internet users worry about their online privacy and 91% said they would avoid companies that do not protect their users' privacy.

A complicating factor is that because smartwatches are relatively new and growing in popularity, it isn't clear to many buyers just how their personal data will be used or what the potential threats could be.

EPIC, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, believes location data from smartwatches and others wearables is potentially insecure because a GPS or Bluetooth scanner could be used to track a person's whereabouts when the device is separated from a smartphone.

"Smartwatches make personal tracking a lot easier," said Julia Horwitz, director of EPIC's consumer privacy project.

Horwitz also warned workers to consider how fitness data from a smartwatch will be used by an employer in an attempt to lower the company's insurance costs. "Employees are told if they accept health data monitoring, they will get gift cards or other incentives," she said.

With so much personal data available from a smartwatch or similar smart device, a name or Social Security number isn't necessary to identify someone, even with the use of anonymization software, Horwitz said.


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