Loss of privacy is the top concern about wearables

The results of a new consumer survey indicate that, when it comes to the potential threats from wearable technologies, invasion of privacy is the number one fear

A customer presents his Apple Watch after buying it at a store.
Credit: REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Now that the Apple Watch is finally a real thing, the use of wearables, which was already growing rapidly, is about to grow even faster. But while things like smartwatches and fitness trackers provide a lot of useful functionality, what, if anything, about these devices concerns people? A new survey of consumers finds that they're most worried about wearables invading their privacy.

In a paper titled Risk Perceptions for Wearable Devices, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley sought to identify the main concerns consumers currently have about wearable technologies and what data they’re most worried about being protected. The goal of the study was to help inform the future design of wearables, such as the types of notifications they provide, permissioning, and access control mechanisms.

To find out, the researchers surveyed 2,250 adult consumers in the United States, ultimately using data from 1,782 of them. Participants were asked to share their concerns about wearables as well as a series of specific questions about how upset they would be if a wearable device shared certain types of personal data (e.g., photos, medical records, financial information) with different groups of people (friend, co-workers, the public).

Some of the results were predictable, others more surprising. Here are some of the key findings:

Privacy is the top concern about wearables

Based on response to the question “What do you think are the most likely risks associated with wearable devices?” the potential invasion of their privacy was the top worry among respondents. Here are the top five types of responses:

    1. Privacy (mentioned by 25% of participants)
    2. Being unaware of what the device is doing/collecting (15%)
    3. Health risk, e.g., radiation (11%)
    4. Safety, e.g. distracted driving (10%)
    5. Social impact, such as dependence, decreased interaction with loved ones, etc. (9%)

The inadvertent release of financial data or embarrassing photos and videos by a wearable device would upset people the most

Here are the five types of data that would make participants the most upset if they were shared without their knowledge:

  1. Video of you unclothed (96% of respondents would be very upset if the data were shared without their knowledge)
  2. Bank account information (96%)
  3. Social Security Number (95%)
  4. Video entering a PIN at an ATM (93%)
  5. Photo of you unclothed (93%)

The data types people were least concerned with being inadvertently shared had to do with things that are observable anyways, such as age (24%) and gender (15%)

People are more concerned about wearables sharing data with other people than with an app

42% of participants said they would be very upset if data were shared with an app. However, more than 70% would be upset if data were inadvertently shared with other people (75% would be upset if data were unknowingly shared co-workers, 72% with the public, 70% with friends). The researchers concluded that the difference in concern between sharing data with app vs. other people was statistically significant.

Wearables elicit slightly more concern than smartphones

59% of respondents said they would be more upset if data were shared by a wearable, compared to 47% being very upset if the same data were shared by a smartphone. Statistically, however, the difference was negligible and the authors attribute it to people simply being more familiar and comfortable with smartphones. They expect that the difference could will probably disappear as people get more used to wearables.

As the authors point out, this type of study is the just first step in helping wearable designers and manufacturers to build devices that address consumers’ concerns, assuming wearable makers will listen and incorporate them at design-time.

“... our primary goal was to examine perceptions and preferences, so that future systems can be designed with these in mind. We do not expect that such systems will satisfy users in all situations, however, we believe that user-centered design will still be a vast improvement over post hoc approaches (or ignoring user concerns altogether).”

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