Q&A: The Future of Wearables in Government

Apple Watches appear on display, Friday, April 10, 2015, in New York.

Apple Watches appear on display, Friday, April 10, 2015, in New York. Bebeto Matthews/AP

The future for wearables in government looks bright, but only with the necessary security measures.

In the future, wearables are going to get smaller, smarter and much more popular in federal agencies, predicts Gabe Grifoni, co-founder and CEO of the wearable technology startup Rufus Labs.

But first things first: Security measures must catch up with the new technology, he told Nextgov.

“I think that there's a lot of stuff that people don't know and I think the government isn’t going to let things in the door until they’re vetted,” he said.

Nextgov spoke with Grifoni about the potential risks and rewards of incorporating wearable technology in government  and about his predictions for their future.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

NG: Tell me about some of trends you’ve noticed recently with wearable technology in government.

GG: At the federal and local government level, we've seen a lot of interest. We're seeing small towns getting grants to foster wearables to help them in emergency response situations. So we're seeing a lot of that on the rise.

Whether they be EMS, search and rescue, or police, giving them hands-free access to wearables to provide different kinds of solutions -- that’s an area that we're seeing a huge amount of interest. I think they understand the benefit. They want their hands free. They need to be able to assist in an emergency situation without having to carry pads of paper, tablets or smartphones.

Let’s say I've got five responders out in the field and they're all connected to each other with their wearables on a Wi-Fi mesh network. If one of those responders isn't moving, my wearable will probably know that because their sensor isn't moving. So we can send a message to that responder. If they don't reply in any kind of affirmative manner that they're OK, we can find someone nearby and send him or her to that location.

Security is also a key area. If you look at political events where you've got teams of security that are in a location, if they have wearables on them, they can be more readily monitored. They can be dispatched to different locations based on where they are, so it can expedite response times. 

NG: Wearables can bolster security but they also come with security challenges, correct?

GG: Whether we're wearing a device that runs on an operating system or monitors things or we have one in our pocket or we're carrying a tablet around, they can all already track us. So a lot of that information is already accessible. If there were a security threat -- and there is and there always will be with software-- it's just a matter of the good guys having software that keeps the bad guys out. And when the bad guys get in, figuring out a way to make it better.

But I think that especially when it's going to be deployed on a government level, security will have to be vetted. I don’t think it's just going to be deployed among everyone. I think that will be a big concern and it will have to be approved. But I think we're going to face the same security risks with wearables that we do with current devices. It's just a matter of getting patches to plug holes where people are getting in.

I think people do jump the gun on putting new technology in things without knowing what it's collecting. Measuring someone’s heart rate is really personal. I don't know how that can be used as a threat, but I'm sure there are ways that it could be. So I think you have to be careful about what data you're collecting right now and before you begin collecting it and connecting it to the Internet of Things.

My popcorn bag has a Wi-Fi chip in it --

NG: It does?

GG: No, I was kidding. But we're not far from that. You could get a toaster with Wi-Fi. I don't know why I need my toaster to tell me when it's done when I'm in the next room and I can smell it and I can hear it ding.

It’s getting to the point where everyone’s just connecting for the sake of connecting. But we have to be careful with those steps because there is data that can easily be extracted from all those devices. We need to do it slowly and methodically.

NG: What I'm hearing you say is when it comes to wearables, it might be best to slow down and make sure all necessary security is in place.

GG: I know everyone’s very excited about wearables and there's good reason to be. We just have to build them the right way. And we have to make sure that we are considering safety, especially in the government space where a lot of wearables, I think, will have a greater adoption sooner than in the consumer space.

NG: Can you tell me about how these wearable security issues are handled today?

GG: I don't know if there is much in the way of security measures. They're so new. The Apple Watch is probably the first device that’s really brought a lot of attention to the category. Before, it was kind of not really talked about much. And even right now, I don't think they're approved for use. It’s so new. I don't think there are policies in place for it.

NG: Do you have any predictions for what the future will hold for wearables?

GG: I think they'll be heavily used. I think in the next five to 10 years, wearables will become pretty commonplace at most government agencies. It will probably start small. Wearable cameras are already gaining traction. Vitals are important, too. I think with heart rate sensors getting a little better over the next few years, you'll be able to monitor a lot of vitals and that will help team managers and team captains keep their teams safe.

And it won't just be one. You'll have several wearables that will work together. They'll be connected via their own little mesh network of Bluetooth or Wi-Fi and they'll all report information back and forth, which will be sent back to a central command center.

It will take time but I really don’t see people holding things or carrying things in their pockets. As sensors get smaller, wearables will just become a normal part of your work gear.

NG: Can you tell me about the evolution of wearables?

GG: They've gotten a lot smaller. Sensors change in size exponentially each year just because that’s the way things work with Moore's Law. Wearables were really impossible a few years ago because things were just too heavy, the battery drain was too great. But as we've gotten smaller chips and lower-drain chips that require less power, they get super tiny.

Bluetooth technology requires very low energy and low power to distribute and send information. So the biggest thing is wearables are getting small. In a few years when they're even thinner and smaller, they'll be all over the government side and more so on the consumer side, too.