Wearable technology: Security’s next dilemma?

Examining the benefits and potential shortfalls of next-generation communication devices

Wearable technology is generally considered to include clothing and accessories that incorporate computers or other electronic components (in contrast to implantable technology such as pacemakers, insulin pumps and bionic eyes).  Perhaps the first type of wearable electronic technology was the calculator wristwatch developed in the 1970s.  In the 1990s, the focus shifted to wearable computers.  While a plethora of devices were developed, virtually none succeeded in the commercial marketplace.  At that time, the available technology could simply not support the expectations that developers had in mind.  Compared to today, computer processors consumed significant amounts of electrical power and were relatively slow, displays had low resolution and batteries were large and short-lived.

In a series of recently published reports, however, Juniper Research predicts that the market for wearable devices will exceed $1.5 billion in 2014.  IHS predicts that the number of wearable devices used over the next two years will rise from 14 million to 200 million and ABI Research estimates that this number will more than double to 485 million by 2018.  These include devices used in healthcare, military applications and in the general consumer marketplace.  The latter encompass monitors for physical activity and heart rate, smart watches, remote controls and augmented displays on contact lenses.

Currently, most wearable devices are sports and activity trackers such as the Instabeat, a waterproof heartbeat monitor mounted on swim goggles that measures the swimmer’s pulse or theFitBit Flex, which measures the number of steps taken, the distance walked and the number of calories burned in a day. The LarkLife band similarly monitors physical activity and, in combination with a smartphone, can log what has been eaten, provide nutrition coaching and also serve as a silent alarm clock to wake the user with a vibration pattern.

The miniaturization of electronic components is advancing rapidly and Motorola has recently submitted a patent application for tattoos that act as microphones for smartphones. The tattoo would be placed on the throat and includes a microprocessor and battery.  It could communicate with phones, computers or gaming devices wirelessly.  A similar tattoo, but removable and placed on the wrist or arm, has already been demonstrated by Motorola as an authentication device for phone and tablet computers.

Wearable technology has also become the link between humans and the machines that they wish to control.  For example, Thalmic Labs has introduced the Myo Armband which detects both muscle activity and motion.  Once paired with devices via Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy, it can be used to control a variety of devices ranging from screen presentations to games to computers. 

Professor Babak Parviz in 2011, then at the University of Washington in Seattle, reported work on contact lenses that could project emails or augment sight with computer-generated images.  Since that time, he has joined Google and developed what has become known as Google Glass - Internet-connected eyeglasses that can take still photos and video, record sound, and project emails to the wearer.  But the technology allows video and audio recording to be accomplished without anyone other than the user being aware that it is being done.  Since the data recorded using Google Glass is stored in a user’s Google+ account, they are available and searchable at any point in the future.  Without a password or PIN (which the Google prototype does not currently possess) it would theoretically be possible for an intruder to connect to the device and download personal information.

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