The connected little guy: When wearable data might not be on your side

No cause for alarm but it turns out tech can be used for good and evil. Sure, wearable tech in particular could save your life, make your schedule easier or train you in new skills. But for all the rose-tinted future gazing into how innovations can improve our lives, we should also keep an eye on how the devices and the data could be used in ways that would unnerve the very buyers of these things.

It all comes back to tracking. Without going full conspiracy theory, it’s no secret that companies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere want to know more about us than ever before. Just check out some of their terms and conditions for wearable products. And put simply: there are plenty of things you wouldn’t want your boss, your insurer or companies looking to part you with your money to know.

We decided to check in with some of the potentially worrying trends that could come out of connecting ourselves. Here are a couple of examples of how wearable tech can further our natural human instincts to make more money or get the upper hand.

All-knowing gadgets

The Motorola WT4000 is a wearable tech shackle if ever we saw one. The controversial wearable ‘terminal’ can be worn on the wrist or on the hip and innocently allocates tasks and allows workers to track goods. It has been used by big retailers like Tesco in its warehouses, where one employee alleged performance data was being used against staff in appraisals. Similar handheld/wearable devices have been used in Amazon warehouses too.

British artist Jeremy Deller has compared the Motorola wearable to clocks in factories during the Industrial Revolution era of appalling working conditions. And the V&A in London added a WT4000 to its collection in 2014 explaining in a blog post that a gadget like this is the “flipside of the extreme efficiency we so enjoy when ordering a book for next day delivery or our groceries selected, packed and delivered to our doorstep.”

Read this: Working wearables – what’s in it for the employees?

Performance wearables range from the ProGlove aimed at the automotive industry to NASA’s recent use of AR and Microsoft’s HoloLens to allow heads-up instructions to be relayed to astronauts. The opportunity to replace time consuming habits is clear to see in manufacturing, distribution and technical jobs.

Tractica predicts that 75 million wearables will be in workplaces by 2020 and Salesforce figures show that 40% of US companies plan to use wearables to monitor employee time management and communication.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with tracking employees’ performance but when time is money and the robots haven’t taken our jobs yet, it’s easy to see how this kind of tech feeds into the current culture of zero hours, low pay, poor conditions and the demand for hyper-efficiency in some of these industries.

Sell, sell, sell

Playing devil’s advocate again, marketing isn’t a) new or b) always without enjoyment for the person being marketed at. But in wearables, augmented and virtual reality, we’ve got to be careful that using these new technologies to market more products doesn’t take over the conversation.

Wearable tech marketing will be hyperlocal, contextual, and looking to harness users’ emotions. All sounds juicy if you’re in the business, kind of terrifying if you’re strapping a new smartwatch or sensor-laden tracker to your wrist. You just paid good money for a device, you don’t expect it to start advertising at you based on personal data.

One positive is that many of the wearable devices we’ve seen coming up that have the potential to help marketers also have huge benefits in health – essentially it’s the same sensors. So for example, a temporary tech tattoo developed at Tel Aviv University can map human emotions.

This is of interest to advertisers who, for instance. could hold market research groups and get precise data on people’s emotions, not just rely on what they’re saying they think and feel. But the connected nanotech stick-on also already helps people who have suffered brain/stroke injuries and amputees controlling artificial limbs.

Professor Yael Hanein, who created the wearable, summed it up nicely: “The ability to identify and map people’s emotions has many potential uses. Advertisers, pollsters, media professionals, and others — all want to test people’s reactions to various products and situations.”

It’s a data eat data world out there

While new tech might advance the causes of big corporations, it’s always worth considering how it affects the citizens, the consumers, the workers. Exchanging your data for cheaper insurance premiums or perks makes sense as long as you read the fine print and aware of the health and fitness information you’re giving away. If you’re not keen on it, there’s plenty of good old-fashioned options available.

Employers and recruiters are beginning to experiment with testing the galvanic skin response i.e stress levels of potential employees at interview to see how they cope under pressure. But we are far from this sort of invasive test being mandatory.

Read this: We read your wearable’s terms and conditions for you

And there are reasons to be optimistic for the paranoid wearable tech fan. Marketers are more cautious with wearable tech than they have been with mobile, for instance. And while there are some nefarious outcomes of implementing wearable watchmen in factories, in many workplaces employees say wearables can increase their productivity by as much as 8.5% as well as their wellbeing, rather than having an adverse effect.

Still, be vigilant about what personal information you’re handing it over whether it’s your steps to your health insurer or the number of tasks you’ve completed in an hour to your boss. Businesses will always want to maximise profits and marketers will always want to get closer to our innermost emotions. Wearable tech does give them new tools, but they’re for the rest of us to get to grips with and use to our advantage too.