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ADVANCE Perspectives: Healthcare Information Professionals

Wearables Wearing Out Their Welcome?

Published February 8, 2016 10:57 AM by ADVANCE Perspectives

By Tamer Abouras

                      

Many of our grandparents — and many people over the age of 50 — have probably uttered at some point, some variation of the expression, “What’s the point of social media? Who needs a picture of your lunch? Who cares?”

 

Hearing something like that — perhaps almost verbatim — has a way of putting us back on our heels just a little bit, doesn’t it? On one hand, people railing against the advance of technology and its ongoing, unending assault on the status quo is nothing new — it may not have even been that revolutionary when the Luddites were doing it over a hundred years ago.

 

With that being said, there’s certainly some salience to the overall point — even if it comes off a little cranky — which is almost implicitly accepted by the fact that criticism of the “Oh, grandpa” argument doesn’t so much refute the initial comments as chide their obviousness. “Of course selfies are a bit self-serving, but that can be a good thing” is essentially the counter.

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As has been demonstrated many times on this blog, however, sharing too much of your own personal information can be far more dangerous for things other than your reputation or self-esteem. And when it comes to wearable health devices such as fitness trackers, that can mean losing your health information all because the devices themselves weren’t secure — and may not have even been designed to be.

 

According to the Toronto newspaper, The Star, reporting on a study by digital research group Open Effect and U of T’s Citizen Lab, “ … many of the most popular devices leak information and are vulnerable to manipulation of recorded data.”

 

The article continued, “The devices, which can track everything from heart rate to quality of sleep, collect fitness data that wearers use to keep track of their health goals. These trackers aren’t just for the health conscious: lawyers and insurance companies have used data to verify users’ fitness. … But while the devices collect an enormous amount of personal health information, key security flaws make it easy to tamper with the data, the study found.”

 

When it came specifically to fitness-based wearables, only Fitbit received a clean bill of health when it pertained to keeping your personal health information safe.

 

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“Only Fitbit used end-to-end encryption, which protects data going into the device and the data going out of it. Without such protection, a motivated user could gain access to their data after the fact and manipulate it — a concerning finding if the device is used in a court of law. Researchers did not test Apple for end-to-end encryption. One device, Garmin Vivosmart, didn’t even encrypt fitness data sent over the Internet, leaving users’ health information vulnerable not only to fakery but to eavesdroppers who might be collecting their data.”

 

Jeffrey Knockel, a senior research fellow at Citizen Lab and one of the authors of the study, had this to say about the security of wearables and how they should serve as a cautionary tale for other devices holding even more of our sensitive information going forward: “They’re worn by tens of millions of people, if we can’t get this right, what hope do we have for our TVs and appliances?” 

 

So, without being a buzzkill, here’s a nod to the oldest among us for unintendedly offering sage advice. While they may not be able to identify all the benefits products such as wearables and social media have to offer us in general, they can certainly spot one crucial flaw and offer a corrective measure. There really is value in discretion. 

 

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    ADVANCE Editorial Staff
    Occupation: Editor
    Setting: ADVANCE for Healthcare Information Professionals
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