What’s on Your Wrist Could Be Leaking Sensitive Data

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Dick Tracey would be stunned by what Americans wear on their wrists today. Tracey, a vintage comic book detective, wore a fancy two-way radio watch back in the 1940s and probably never thought twice about privacy issues. But in the modern world, digital privacy is a valid concern, and you should understand how your smartwatch could potentially be putting your data at risk.

In 2017, worldwide sales of smartwatches were expected to top 41.5 million units according to Gartner. This emerging tech can count steps, respond to texts, track sleep, and even count heartbeats. The data involved seems pretty benign, doesn’t it? But these devices may also, depending on their settings, transmit geo-location to the cloud minute by minute and transfer data to other devices.

Most smartwatches connect to a smartphone via Bluetooth. Data flows from the phone to the wrist, but the once the wrist device holds the data the smartphone no longer controls how the information is processed and stored, which could put the data at risk. Apps downloaded onto the device create another layer of risk.

Minimizing Risk for Kids Around the World

Germany recently found the privacy risks associated with children’s smartwatches unacceptable in some situations and banned several wearable devices aimed at kids, urging parents to destroy them.

The Norway Consumer Council (NCC) in October 2017 issued a report entitled #Watchout that pointed out numerous risks associated with smart devices for youngsters, including the ability to track children with a minimal amount of hacking.

In the U.S., some consumer groups are cautioning parents against buying smartwatches for their children. The organizations warn that the features designed to help parents keep tabs on their children could be putting their kids at risks.

It’s not surprising that the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which enforces the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act (COPPA), issued new guidance regarding the collection of information from youth under the age of 13. The FTC has added new types of data, including images, videos, and audio files, to the definition of personal information.

Protecting Privacy at All Ages

Cybersecurity starts with the wearer. The best defense is a little pre-purchase research. Does the watch have a lock mechanism? Can it be set to auto lock when you take it off? Will settings allow you to make sufficient privacy choices? How and when will the device receive security updates? Does the manufacturer collect or share your data? All data collection devices should offer some privacy protection.

Wearables are expected to continue evolving at a rapid rate, with the potential to move far beyond number of steps, heart rates, and sleeping patterns. There is a race to the future to develop biosensor devices that test blood sugar levels without a needle prick or apps that monitor blood pressure automatically. There is amazing potential, but with this potential comes security and privacy issues that will need to come to the forefront of this technology evolution.

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