Skip to main content

Is Your Smart Watch Watching You?

Person Wearing White Silicone Strap Black Smart Watch Wallpaper Preview

The short answer is yes. Recently, The IU Center for Bioethics hosted a talk, given by Dr. Andrew Brightman, discussing the ethics of research involving wearable technologies. Dr. Brightman is a professor of Engineering Practice and Associate Head of the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering at Purdue University. He spoke about the ethical quandaries often identified concerning wearable technologies. Consumer health wearables like smart watches have the ability to monitor and store data using cameras, GPS, ECG, microphone, thermometer, oximeter, and Bluetooth proximity. These consumer health wearables have the capacity to track and store a phenomenal amount of information about users. Companies producing wearable technologies argue that storing information is necessary for both the research and development of better consumer products and as a key to marketing other products that could be more beneficial to users in the future.

Accuracy of Data

If no one is wearing his/her smart watch 24/7/365- is it realistic to assume we can rely on the accuracy of the data collected? Moreover, does your watch ever think you are running when you are doing other activities like strumming a guitar or sautéing vegetables?

Suppose you take your watch off to charge it. You forget about it and as it happens, your watch stays on the nightstand for the next two days all the while collecting data that could suggest your immobility. If wearable technology companies are collecting this data, who- if anyone- is responsible for interpreting it? Will they think you must have forgotten about your charging watch? Or should they be concerned that you have fallen and can’t get up? Or maybe that you have depression and are unable to get out of bed? With 526 million connected wearable devices worldwide, what obligation do the non-researchers from technology companies have when it comes to caring about and protecting you, the consumer?

Moral Obligation

Embedded in clothing and technology, health wearables provide a unique opportunity to collect data on patient health and explore early indicators for disease. Do we have a moral obligation to intervene and share data with consumers whose information is being collected and could prove useful to them and their physicians? If not, what deontological considerations must take place to ensure that third-party organizations like health insurance companies do not begin discriminating based on this kind of data? Considering the implications for the return of results by an untrained non-researcher whose collected data comes from devices not designed for research, it’s important that companies who claim to value, promote, and monitor health and wellness should do so accurately and effectively. If any company finds themselves qualified to track and store sensitive patient information, they also have an obligation to responsibly return that data to their individual consumers.

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.

Katie Randall

Graduate Research Assistant, IUSM Center for Bioethics

Katie is currently pursuing her masters degree in bioethics at IUPUI. Her research interests include clinical ethics, death and dying, women's health, and human rights.