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Our smart watches are collecting thousands of data points on our health, activity levels, actions and goals each day. What is happening to that data? This post will explore both how data from wearable devices is being used and what you can do to keep your data safe.


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The Growing Popularity of Smart Watches

As the global market for wearable devices is expected to top $51.6 billion by 2022, the issues surrounding data privacy and protection are top-of-mind for millions of smart watch wearers. Especially when it comes to all of the biometric data being collected. In early 2013, the Pew Foundation’s “Tracking for Health” study found that 69 percent of Americans track some form of health-related information and 21 percent of them use some form of digital device to do so. And that was back in 2013.

Chart displaying the global wearables device market

If you want to understand where wearable technology is headed, just look to CES, the Consumer Electronic Show, where new products and innovations are debuted. Compared to last year, there were 25 percent more health-related exhibitors in Las Vegas, and a 15 percent increase in the amount of floor space dedicated to health tech, according to the Consumer Technology Association, the organization that presents the show.

It’s not just consumers that want more ways to track their health and wellness—medical institutions do, too. Used with consent, this information has the potential to save lives. As the Guardian reports, research using fitness trackers has looked at breast cancer survivors’ fitness levels compared with cognitive decline; how movement can help patients avoid readmission after surgery; and whether multiple myeloma patients are getting enough sleep.

That being said, customer surveys reveal that among individuals who agree to make their personal health data available for research, 57 percent would only do so on the condition that their privacy would be protected. Over 90 percent of respondents indicated the importance of anonymity for the data contributor.

This is where consumers need to be diligent about reading their products’ terms and conditions and privacy policies, and understanding which laws we have in place to protect our data.

Does HIPPA Apply to Wearables?

Your wearables are most likely handling “PHI” classified data. This is a classification given by our legal system to denote any information that is protected health information, like medical records, demographic information, mental health records, etc. Anything handling PHI data gets special treatment in the form of laws and regulations. One of those regulations is called HIPPA, which is designed to protect personal information and data collected and stored in medical records.

So, does HIPPA apply to smart watches? In an interview with HealthITSecurity.com, Pamela Greenstone, a program director for the online health information management program at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Allied Health, stressed that the use of wearables in healthcare is a “gray area” when it comes to HIPAA compliance. This is because HIPAA only comes into play when third parties, like medical or insurance institutions are using your data. They need to have secure ways to store that data.

This is a growing challenge for those who work in the data security space. As doctors learn more about the benefits of patients using wearable tech, medical institutions will need to find ways to process large amounts of data and store them safely. “When your healthcare providers are now asking you to send all wearables data to them to monitor chronic conditions and to help you live a healthy lifestyle, it becomes a bigger onus for the healthcare organizations to make sure that data is protected and stored in a HIPAA-compliant way,” Greenstone said.

Fortunately, wearable makers are heeding the call and developing ways to ensure their devices are HIPAA-compliant as well. Samsung has launched its Knox security platform and Apple has its HealthKit platform to improve the security of their mobile devices.

What Can I Do To Protect My Smart Watch Data?

Most sources I checked aren’t really concerned about your smart watch getting hacked. Any data sent between your smart watch and your phone should be encrypted, as is the case with Apple. Even so, here are a few tips to make sure you’re an informed consumer, and to safeguard against malware.

1. Read Your Device’s Privacy Policy

It’s really up to service providers to be clear about how personal data is to be collected, stored and used. This may be a challenge for wearables as the screen space for getting this information across is quite small. Providers will need to come up with more innovative ways to make it easier for users to understand data protection policies and what they’re consenting to.

2. Download Apps Carefully

A general guideline is to stick to applications that are sold in the Google Play Store or iOS App Store. Explore believability and trustworthiness of applications before you download them on your device. Also, in case you’re an iOS user, jailbreaking your smart phone—while liberating—can also open you up to some security headaches.

3. Lock Your Apple Watch

Use Apple’s Password and Activation Lock to make your smart watch more secure if lost or stolen. Try to use a different passcode than what your iPhone uses. If you’ve activated Activation Lock, anyone who finds or steals an Apple Watch will have to provide the associated Apple ID and password before they can erase and use it with a new iPhone. It also kicks in when someone attempts to unpair your watch from your iPhone or disable the location feature.

Additionally, you can download the Find My iPhone app, and use it to find your smart watch. Activate Lost Mode to customize a short message that will show up for anyone that finds your watch, for example, “This watch belongs to Ashley, please call xxx-xxx-xxxx.”

Hopefully, with this information you feel safer about the data being collected from your wearable tech. As we transition further into digitizing more aspects of our life, home, health—you name it—understanding the breadth of our digital footprint (and who’s keeping it safe) will be critical. If you’re interested in technology and the science of health and aging, stay informed by following us on social at facebook and Instagram.