Author(s): Peter Bryer
The past few days have seen several interesting stories concerning the collection and ownership of users' health-related information. Sensors and apps enable the collection of massive amounts of small data, but questions are being raised about personal security and the privacy of that information, no matter what the intention.
Yesterday, several major news outlets reported on Baseline Study, a new Google project. A Google research team will use detailed data collected by sensors in wearables to identify healthy patterns among the 175 individuals in the study. Conscious of potential privacy concerns, the group is working with third-party clinics to collect the data and Google said it has established individual review boards to ensure the information isn't used directly for commercial purposes.
The project crosses IT-industry practices with the world of molecular biology. The study is run by Dr Andrew Conrad, a molecular biologist himself and familiar with trials in which study participants wear such things as smart contact lenses to continuously monitor glucose levels. There's no reason to doubt the altruistic intention of the study, but it raised immediate privacy concerns given that wearables now allow companies to track individuals down to a molecular level. Such information could be valuable to businesses in an array of industries, from insurance to pharmaceuticals to online dating.
News of the project came a day after Julie Brill, head of the US Federal Trade Commission, warned of the relatively unregulated use of health care data collected on mobiles. The commission recently revealed a study showing that much of the information recorded by health care-related apps is shared with third parties for purposes including individual profiling and marketing. Ms Brill warned that consumers aren't aware of what happens to the information collected by their devices, and is encouraging the US Congress to pass laws to ensure that apps collect personal data in an ethical manner.
App developers are ready to fight the other side of the argument, stating their concern that new regulations could impede innovation. It's a new and relatively unregulated area, but regulators are making it known they are keeping an eye on ambitions as the likes of Google, Apple and Microsoft expand further into health and well-being services.
Google's Baseline Study is an indication of the incredible level of detail that can be collected and analysed, but the possibility that such very personal data could be available to the highest bidder is of legitimate concern. Potential privacy issues in the world of wearables are causing regulators to step in. Device makers and service providers need to be aware of potential changes.