Can Privacy Legislation Keep up with Wearable Tech?

December 31, 2016 by Chantelle Dubois

What sort of implications should we begin to expect from wearable technology?

Lawmakers are struggling to protect us from the invasion of privacy that comes with increased tracking through wearables. Are we willing to sacrifice privacy for convenience?

Wearable technology has seen a drastic increase in popularity since the smart watch trend took off in 2014. Since then, smart watches have taken on a variety of forms and functions, ranging anywhere from a simple fitness band with a small LCD screen, to near-perfect replicas of traditional luxury watches that can easily replace all functions of your phone. With increasing numbers of wrists sporting these devices, which have become more capable and feature rich, what sort of implications should we begin to expect from this new technology?

Data Collection and Processing

While the monitoring of your heart rate may seem relatively innocuous, around the world there are many regulatory safeguards in place to ensure that, when a company collects data from a consumer, it is handled in a very specific way. This includes ensuring that processed data is not tied in with any sort of identifying information, and that the way the data is used and stored is disclosed to the user who must provide consent.

In the wrong hands, health data, and any other data collected by a wearable device, could allow companies and organizations unsettling insight into your health, habits, and activities.


The Fitbit Charge 2 allows consumers to track their health and fitness. Image courtesy of Fitbit.

Wearable Tech in the Workplace

Some companies place a high value on employee wellness, incentivizing active living and healthy lifestyle choices. While it may seem the use of a health tracker to monitor employee health performance may seem like an easy way to do this, the ability to monitor an employee’s activities outside of work place hours may not sit well with privacy protection regulators.

In the Netherlands, using wearable technology to monitor employees has been outright banned even with employee consent, and even if the data is collected anonymously. This is in line with the European Union’s overall data protection framework, making it likely other EU members may take a similar stance in the future. The ruling was made in reaction to two Dutch companies which sought to collect data on employee sleep habits and movement.

When the same authority in the Netherlands banned the Nike+ fitness app in 2015, they cited a variety of reasons in a 100-paged report on why the tracker failed to meet privacy regulation standards. Included were that the company did not disclose what data was processed, for what purpose the data was being processed, whether or not the data would be stored indefinitely, and the fact that the app does not require explicit consent from the user to process data.

In other countries, such as the USA, it is still perfectly legal for a company to collect data from employee wearable devices with consent. However, as technology progresses, data and privacy laws continue to change and evolve. 

Eye Wearables

The very anticipated Google Glass product is still under development with no clear release date on the horizon. Since the announcement of the product, other concerns have been raised about privacy issues when wearing a device that is capable of recording and taking photos discretely in a variety of situations. While the most recent prototype still looks peculiar enough for anyone interacting with a person wearing them to know what the headset is, if the device eventually streamlines to look more like traditional eye wear, conversations, interactions, or intimate encounters could easily be recorded without permission.


The Google Glass Enterprise. Image courtesy of X (formerly Google X).


Even more clandestine are smart lenses, which would have similar functionality as the Google Glass head piece, but miniaturized to contact lenses. In 2014, Sony applied for a patent for contact lenses which could capture images and video just by blinking.

Google and Sony are not the only companies looking to develop such wearable devices either. Hopefully by the time smart lenses make their leap into the mainstream market, more awareness and regulation will help ensure privacy continues to be protected for everyone.