Wear it in good healthJuly 8, 2021 | By Ina Wanca
Wearables have come a long way from their debut as simple pedometers. Beyond step counts, the latest devices track a feature-rich array of behavioral and physiological data metrics. In some cases, this data must be manually input by the wearer — cups of water consumed, minutes of exercise, mindful moments. In others, statistics such as heart rate, sleep cycles and oxygen levels are captured by embedded sensors and biofeedback software. This data, and the insights gleaned, ultimately contribute to recommended actions for the consumer to improve their sense of health and well-being.
As the sophistication of these sensors improves with time and competition, the line between medical and consumer devices could begin to blur. If the camera in a modern smartphone can produce professional-quality prints, it is certainly possible that a wearable can record a heartbeat at least as well as a stethoscope. If anything, these feature-rich platforms, the sleek form factors and virtual intelligence within wearables can make some medical equipment look almost outdated. The result is an emerging class of always-on diagnostic-like devices that have the potential to affect consumer health decisions and the interactions with their healthcare providers.
Similarly, wearables can (and do) provide commerce-related insights to consumers. In addition to supporting contactless payments, data being collected can be used to initiate contextually relevant commerce opportunities. Imagine the following scenario: A consumer’s smartwatch detects poor sleep habits by the consumer. Algorithms in the cloud build a shopping list complete with comfortable pajamas, lavender-scented eye masks and sleep-improving supplements.
While some consumers would opt out of this service, others would gladly trade their data for the improvement in their sleep habits and shopping convenience. In the same way personal financial management solutions recommend products that could save consumers money, wearable devices can recommend the purchase of new running shoes, water bottles and mattresses. But imagine instead that the wearable was monitoring changes to the consumer’s potassium levels or something similarly invasive?
Securing consumer data and protecting its privacy is not a new concern, but the intersection of health and commerce does seem to elevate the level of sensitivity with which data must be handled.
One way to protect data is through tokenization. Under a tokenization scheme, sensitive data such as an account number are converted via cryptographic algorithms into seemingly random strings of characters until it is needed for a transaction or other process. Even then, the data can be manipulated or appended by the tokenizing entity to protect the data from misuse. In digital payments, tokenization has proven to be a highly effective means of mitigating fraud and protecting consumer account information. In fact, today’s payment-enabled wearables often rely on tokenization platforms to store consumer payment credentials.
While tokenization has proven to be highly effective at protecting sensitive data thus far, an emerging category of solutions known as privacy-protecting computation aims to make data both more accessible and more secure. Privacy-preserving computation combines hardware and software solutions that enable parties to effectively share data without revealing the underlying nature of the data. Simply put, the technology is a set of frameworks and approaches that allow extraction of insights, output from data without having to “look” at the data.
However, the discussion of data protection should not end with the measures original equipment manufacturers and AI devices can take. While it’s important to ensure the necessary protections are in place for where the data is stored, there must of course also be protocols in place for how that data is used by other parties.
Looking to the future
Every day, we move closer to a future where scenarios involving AI-driven proactive wearables become more sophisticated and accurate in their predictions based on the data they generate. And to prepare for this future, commerce companies and healthcare providers must maintain a strong focus on the ethical use of consumer data — providing tailored value without overstepping privacy boundaries or compromising consumers’ personal information.
In the near future, the worlds of traditional healthcare and consumer self-care will continue to merge as wearables become more popular and generate AI-driven insights about individual users. In this digitally transformed future, smart wearables will do more than just monitor users’ vital signs, provide insights and perform analytics. The devices will also create opportunities for proactive rather than reactive healthcare for consumers, making the necessary response more actionable and preventive and opening new doors for commerce, automation and healthcare alike.
The future of wearable biotechnology will enhance human health and enable people to live in challenging environments. With the advancement of neuroscience and biosensors, future wearable devices will be able to closely monitor cognitive states and intervene to enhance cognition.
However, with the new opportunities to leverage consumer data comes the responsibility to handle it ethically. While there are major advancements in technology that offer new ways to protect private data, there is also a need for core principles and boundaries that clearly define the limits of how user data can — and should — be used.