Fitness devices and the principles of data protection

March 5, 2015 in Medical Technology

Parallel to rising interest in wearable tech is mounting criticism that these devices put consumer data at risk.

Critics are concerned that inadequately protected data will be vulnerable to hackers and could open the doors for discrimination from employers or insurers. It could also put users’ reputations or safety on the line.

Prominent figures and organizations have been busy writing guidelines for privacy frameworks that balance industry advancement with the protection of user data.

Privacy by design and data minimization

Due to lack of oversight, many apps are not developed with privacy in mind. At the International Consumer Electronics Show in January, Edith Ramirez, head of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), said that internet-connected devices have the capacity to “present a deeply personal and startlingly complete picture of each of us.” She noted that privacy controls must be built into products, instead of added as an afterthought, a guideline dubbed “privacy by design.”

The FTC also seeks to establish the tenet of data minimization. This means that companies that produce internet-connected devices should limit data collection to only that which is needed for a product or service to work effectively, and should dispose of consumer data when it is no longer needed.

Respect for context

In Consumer Data Privacy in a Networked World, President Barack Obama says that privacy in the Internet Age depends, in part, on attention to context: “When consumers provide information about themselves…they reasonably expect companies to use this information in ways that are consistent with the surrounding context.”

Following suit, The Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank whose mission is to advance responsible data practices, lists “respect for context” as one of the principles of its “flexible, use-focused wearables paradigm.” They also list the importance of conducting risk-benefit analyses before using personal data; transparency and de-identifying information; ensuring reasonable individual access and appropriate security; and developing codes of conduct for data use.

Balancing restraint and growth

Health wearables have the potential to drive advancement in sustainable development, public health research, individualized marketing and more, but overly stringent protection policies could hinder innovation. This complex area deserves considerable attention if the promises of wearable tech are to become a reality.

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