The age of wearable devices is about to dawn. With Apple entering the fray and health tracking devices like Fitbit surging in popularity, there’s a good chance that in a few years, nearly everyone will have some form of wearable device.
For businesses and professionals that work with data, this new era of wearable devices creates a world of possibilities - and tough ethical questions.
Wearable devices are a marketer’s dream. Consider devices that monitor health, can collect information on the health, heart rate, location, movement and activity undertaken by an individual. When combined with other health apps that monitor factors such as food and drink intake, a very rich picture of the habits and preferences of a consumer emerges.
By using data science techniques, specific types of people can be targeted by marketers. This goes way beyond social preferences and demographics, but encompasses the implied preferences of individuals based on thousands of seemingly disparate factors. It enables highly-targeted marketing campaigns or services.
Such high-level targeting raises the first major ethical question: where should the privacy line be drawn? This isn’t an easy question to answer because each person will draw the line in a different place. Businesses need to balance the convenience of what they are offering with the ‘creepiness’ factor. Data science could provide invaluable guidance by determining where this privacy tipping point is likely to occur for each individual based on their profile. However, businesses will also need to be open with how they use consumer data gathered from wearable devices.
This brings me neatly onto the second ethical dilemma - what services or products should companies offer based on wearable data? For example, is it right for a brand to offer fatty foods to someone who has a very sedentary and unhealthy lifestyle? Is it moral to offer divorce or dating services to an individual who has been identified as having a very stressful home life and characteristics that indicate they are not getting on with their partner? The answer in both cases is probably no.
However, it would be impossible to legislate against this type of targeting. Therefore, it will be incumbent upon businesses to decide their own rules. Inevitably, some companies will cross the line. To maintain trust, businesses need to be open about how they use wearable data and how it influences their products or services.
Wearable data will become a major part of the wider dialogue on privacy in the digital world. Transparency with consumers is one way a business can insulate itself against accusations of misuse of data. The second is to educate consumers on how wearable data and data science actually work in practice. Showcasing how personal information is, for all practical purposes, anonymous, is critical.
Businesses need to convey the message that individuals are essentially numbers and their information is buried in a huge amount of data that only complex algorithms can reveal. Again, this is not a straight-forward task. The nature of wearable data, especially if is added to other datasets, means that it is not necessarily a difficult task to identify an individual. It will be up to businesses to ensure they have the controls in place to stop this from happening.
Failing to maintain trust with consumers in relation to wearable data will severely limit its practical use. Every business has an ethical and strategic obligation to ensure it is responsible and has the right processes in place to prevent a widespread backlash against the use of wearable data.