Big Data

The Father of Wearable Computers Thinks Their Data Should Frighten You

Four fitness trackers are worn, including the Fitbit Force and Nike FuelBand SE.

Four fitness trackers are worn, including the Fitbit Force and Nike FuelBand SE. // Richard Drew/AP

We may not understand the full impact that wearable computers—fitness trackers like the Fitbit, and augmented-reality devices like Google Glass, for example—have on our privacy. In fact, one of the first computer scientists to work on wearable tech says we should be more wary.

Alex “Sandy” Pentland, director of the MIT Human Dynamics Lab, is an expert on the intersection of society and big data. Thanks to the revelations last year by Edward Snowden, many people now realize that their metadata (e.g., not the contents of your email, but the time and place you sent it from) is often up for grabs, regardless of how many privacy barriers they’ve put in place. But Pentland doesn’t think we’re scared enough.

"The thing is, I can read most of your life from your metadata,” Pentland told The Verge. “And what’s worse, I can read your metadata from the people you interact with. I don’t have to see you at all. People are upset about privacy, but in one sense they are insufficiently upset because they don’t really understand what’s at risk. They are only looking at the short term.” The possible scenarios, he said, are “downright scary."

Indeed, data on where you are at specific times can be quite telling. A recent study led by Stanford University Ph.D candidate Jonathan Mayer found that even phone call metadata could establish that people were most likely buying guns, growing marijuana, suffering from certain health problems, or terminating pregnancies. It’s not difficult to imagine that real-time location data could do so as well.

But Pentland wants us to be afraid of data collection, not of wearables themselves. Wearables, he told The Verge, will also allow us to be more social and productive, and supplement our memories with easily accessible information. We need them—but we also need data privacy laws to evolve before the technology becomes ubiquitous. The solution, Pentland said, is to make individuals the masters of their own data. “That’s the most important thing,” he said. “Control of the data.” How to achieve it? He didn’t specify.

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// September 12
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