On 3 March, the House Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade held a hearing to familiarize itself with wearable technologies and their role as economic disrupters.
While many are familiar with the already popular use of smart sensors embedded into shoes, shirts, watches, and other wearable items to track and communicate the wearer’s health and performance data, the committee learned that there are many other applications gaining prevalence. Wearables are being used by retailers to monitor customer experiences in order to improve the efficiency of retail operations, personalize marketing, and notify customers of ongoing sales and promotions. Coaches and trainers are using wearables to track real-time information about an athlete’s performance. Industrial wearables are revolutionizing manufacturing operations and processes, in such areas as supply-chain logistics, workflow monitoring, maintenance, scheduling and employee safety.
A staff whitepaper prepared for the hearing reported that the wearable technology market would consist of more than 780 million wearable devices, worth more than $8.36 billion, by 2018. The whitepaper also cited sources projecting that use of wearable technology in the workplace can increase productivity by as much as 8.5 percent, and increase employee satisfaction by 3.5 percent.
The hearing charter focused on five questions concerning the impact of wearables on innovation and economic growth: the potential for wearables to disrupt consumer and employer engagement in commerce; the extent to which policy-makers should treat wearable technology differently than other connected devices (due to their proximity to users); how the marketplace is addressing cybersecurity and privacy concerns; and the overall implications of wearable technology and related applications for the infrastructure.
Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), chair of the subcommittee, opened the hearing by inviting the witnesses to inform the committee on how users are making use of wearable technologies, how they will be protected from misuse, and what the future applications are likely to be.
Thomas D. Bianculli, vice president for emerging technology at Zebra Technologies, a maker of RFID tags, stressed the significance of wearables as a disruptive technology, noting that they “empower workers with total hands-free mobility in a manner that also provides instant access to business-critical information.” He shared an example of a worker suspended high above the ground repairing the electrical grid who could transmit data or view complex schematics with a simple voice command or turn of the head. Bianculli projected forward to the use of biologically embedded or implantable devices in the not-too-distant future .
As far as government’s role, Bianculli called on congress and the administration “to take a light touch where wearable technology is concerned ” for the same reasons that many in industry as well as in congress and the administration have advocated for a light regulatory approach to the Internet of Things (IoT).” The goal would be to adopt policies that “allow for the rapid development, deployment and subsequent advancement of wearable technology in a manner that simultaneously addresses concerns over data security, encryption and privacy. ”
Mr. Suresh Palliparambil, director of American sales and business development for NXP, noted that “the rapid expansion of public and private data networks, the rise of social media and the mass deployment of smart objects across the Internet of Things have connected us in ways we didn’t think possible two decades age.” He cautioned, that “they’ve also left us open, vulnerable and exposed.” He emphasized NXP’s focus on addressing these vulnerabilities, using technology to avoid unauthorized access in public and private areas of the Internet of Things and developing tamper-resistant secure devices. With respect to the future of wearables, he reported that “while there are a number of innovations taking place in the wearable technology space at the moment, with everything from smart glasses to intelligent hearing aids being developed, the competition probably will be fiercest around the wrist.”
Doug Webster, vice president of service provider marketing for Cisco, shared Cisco’s projection that there will be 601 million wearable devices globally by 2020, up from 97 million in 2015. With respect to communications infrastructure impacts, Cisco predicts more than 85 percent of those devices will still require technologies such as Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to connect to the Internet, with fewer than 15 percent of devices transmitting directly via cellular networks. At that level, wearable traffic would account for about 1 percent of total mobile data traffic by 2020.
Given the projected growth in importance of wearable-generated data, Webster added it was important for policy-makers to understand the policy implications, and encouraged Congress to:
- Ensure that radio spectrum is available with the right set of rules to make sure these devices can transmit.
- Support investment in the wireless networks and wired networks needed to transport data to the Internet.
- Encourage start-ups and small companies by ensuring access to venture capital, pro-growth tax policies that support research & development, as well as encouraging more young people to enter careers in the STEM fields.
- Incentivize device manufacturers to understand the privacy and security threats, and take proactive steps to protect their devices and the personal information of consumers.
Scott Peppet, a professor of law at the University of Colorado’s School of Law, also focused on the policy implications of wearables, noting four specific risks to which industry and lawmakers should attend:
- Wearable devices are prone to data security problems due to limited form factors, which can make robust security more difficult to implement; and often relatively low target price points, which can make strong security measures cost prohibitive.
- Wearable device data can encourage context-violative data uses such as analysis of movement patterns to detect the wearer’s location. Or for example, Pepper noted “exercise data might permit inferences about a person’s character, motivation, employment habits, and even credit-worthiness (e.g., if a person exercises a lot, they are likely diligent and hard-working).”
- Wearable device data are relatively easy to re-identify, making laws/regulations requiring anonymizing or de-identifying data as a privacy measure easy to circumvent.
Peppet closed by endorsing the Federal Trade Committee’s January 2015 report on the Internet of Things calling for general federal privacy legislation that would authorize the FTC to mandate basic privacy protections.
The hearing ended with the demonstration of various wearable devices and a request from the chair to the witnesses for responses to follow-on questions, including their thoughts on the role of encryption in ensuring the privacy of user data in wearable devices.
For more information, see the hearing video and prepared statements at: