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Smartwatches: the next big privacy-killer

By Stephen Schenck September 3, 2013, 8:13 pm

People are finally talking about privacy again, a conversation that’s been long overdue. It seems like every few years there’s some minor hubub getting people worked-up about whatever the hot-button privacy concern du jour is. But then it’s never too long before that outrage quickly fades into our memories, and we fall right back into our old patterns, privacy concerns be damned.

For as big and important as the NSA PRSIM scandal is, not to mention the latest revelation of AT&T going out of its way to provide the DEA with call data going well back into last century, chances are we’ll once again learn to live with how increasingly transparent our lives are becoming, just feeling impotent to effect any real change.


That’s just sad, but I harbor no illusions that this isn’t the way the world’s going, wholesale. After all, people willingly share the kind of minutiae from their daily lives on Facebook that they probably weren’t even telling their closest friends a decade ago.

But for a brief moment, while these concerns are still on the forefront of our minds, I want to talk about a growing threat to privacy that’s right around the corner. It’s no sea change, by any means, but rather a perfect storm of sorts, gathering together and concentrating the types of privacy issues that have faced smartphones for years now: I’m talking about the rise of the smartwatch.

Samsung Galaxy Gear

The Galaxy Gear will launch tomorrow, unless Samsung gets some last-minute cold feet, and by all accounts this will easily be the most functional, powerful, and widely adopted smartwatch to date. It should pack processing power that surpasses even full-blown phones from just a year or two back, and alongside the coming commercial launch of Google Glass, may finally get wearable tech the attention it needs.

But as smartwatches get “smarter,” and more connected, we’re going to see the sort of software they run begin to evolve. More than just alerting you to calls, delivering your text messages on their tiny screens, or giving you convenient media playback controls, smartwatches will inevitably attempt to provide users with more information, and specifically more targeted, useful information.

This idea has been talked about a lot, but one of the most compelling ideas for smartphones has been integration with Google-Now-like services. Instead of using your phone to pull up a grocery list, your smartwatch would detect when you’re getting near the grocery store, scan your chat history and notice you were talking about being out of milk, and remind you to pick some up.

That’s a perfect example of working within the constraints of smartwatch hardware. No matter what we do, we’re still looking at devices with small screens, inelegant for touch input, and hardware buttons than risk being awkward to actuate (sorry, Pebble). Minimizing the amount of touch input a user needs in order to get the most out of his or her smartwatch will go a long way towards creating a quality user experience.

So, what’s the problem? Well, in order to use a service like that, you’re either going to have all your data under one roof (like Google users) or need to grant whatever smartwatch software you end up choosing access to all your disparate email, calendar, and note-taking services. That kind of one-stop-shopping for personal data is a privacy nightmare (or dream come true, if you’re on the other end).


And I know: you’re thinking, “but that’s how Google Now already works. What’s the difference here?” Well, you can still get a heck of a lot of usage out of your smartphone without using such services at all. The large screen and convenient touch input mean that you aren’t necessarily missing out on anything when, instead of asking Google about for details on a meeting next week, you have to tap your screen twice to pull up the info yourself. Even simple tasks like that become a lot more strained within the confines of a smartwatch; far more so that with phones, you’d be missing out on the key user experience by not taking advantage of these services.

And what about GPS? Location data has always been a real sticking point for me, and to this day I still don’t enable apps to access location data on my phones. And why would I? I already know wherever I am (by virtue of being there), and can easily pull up a map on a phone to manually see where I need to head next. With apps that require location info to function (like the International Space Station tracker I’ve been playing with on Android lately) I can just enter some general, non-specific info – but those kind of work-arounds don’t really apply to the sort of smartwatch uses I’m describing.

Then there’s the issue of persistence. Maybe you wouldn’t necessarily carry your whole smartphone with you when going for a jog or a bike ride, but it’s going to be a lot more tempting to simply leave a smartwatch on: it’s small, you’re not going to drop it by accident, and it probably has all your workout music on it. While I’m hoping that options will be in place to disable GPS reception when requested, how many users are even going to think about the choice, much less make it?

Basically, smartwatches are going to take all the big privacy concerns that have existed with smartphones, make it more difficult to enjoy these devices without sacrificing personal info, and will stick with us through more of the day than even our phones do now.

You may not be forced to give up a lot of privacy to use a smartwatch, but unless I’m totally off-base here, the quality of a smartwatch user’s experience is going to be directly linked to just how much personal information they’re willing to divulge.


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