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Smart clothing: should you be worried about your privacy?


Tiny sensors in your clothes have the potential to unlock revealing insights about your health and wellbeing. But who owns all that data and might they be selling your health information to third-party partners?

Traditionally, the strongest personality in the meeting room would help determine the future business strategy they thought would deliver the best results. The leader would proudly follow their instincts based on their experience and belief system. But enterprises of all sizes are now switching to data-driven decision-making, where actionable data is used to inform business decisions rather than the loudest voice in the room.

In our personal lives, we now generate an estimated 1.7MB of data every second. The content we stream, products we buy, every touch, swipe, and click collectively generate data that forms a digital footprint that could impact our future. But if data can help businesses be more proactive than reactive and thrive in a digital age, could it also help us all be the best version of ourselves?

Eat better and exercise more

It's all too easy to feel trapped in your comfort zone of misery. So, in 2007, Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine decided to embark on a journey to unlock the algorithm of life and gain self-knowledge through numbers when they founded the Quantified Self (QS) movement. As a result, many began lifelogging, recording their calorie intake, liquid intake, step count, heart rate, exercise, and wellbeing.

As colleagues compared step counts in meeting rooms, we quickly entered a new era of gamification in healthcare. Advances in technology make behaviour change easier and support lasting changes while making it fun. For example, the UK Government recently announced a new pilot scheme where wearing wrist-worn devices generate personalized health recommendations.

Data gained from the wearable device is used to encourage healthy behaviours.

For example, users who increase their step count and eat more fruit and vegetables can unlock rewards such as cinema tickets or clothing vouchers. But this is only the beginning as smart clothing quietly prepares to enter the mainstream.

Wearing your health

Smart clothing products come in many shapes and sizes. For example, some shirts monitor your heart rate, activity, and breathing while sleepwear garments can track your sleep levels and sync data to your smartphone. Football fans will have also noticed that footballers are increasingly wearing under-shirt garments that resemble a sports bra. Once again, it's a form of smart clothing containing a GPS tracking device that records data about the players' movements.

Advances in technology are driving forward sports science to optimize a player's physical performance while also minimizing the risk of injury. STATSports and their wearable technology are proving to be a big hit, with the world's biggest football clubs looking to make marginal gains over their opponents. In addition, the ability to have accurate and in-depth statistics on training performances and in big games is quickly proving to be invaluable.

Another company called Nextiles is on a mission to build a more connected future where clothing can capture biometric, biomechanics data and from everything the user interacts with. Elsewhere, Neviano's range of connected swimsuits promises to detect the strength of ultraviolet light when sun worshippers hit the beach. But what happens to this deluge of data?

Smart clothing and wearable data privacy

Tiny sensors in your clothes gathering location, health metrics, and app activity have the potential to unlock revealing insights about your health and wellbeing. But users also need to question who owns this data and if they might sell the information to third-party partners. In addition, creators of smart clothing also need to tread carefully around the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA).

As an increasing number of sensors and devices continue to gather vast quantities of data around our daily habits and behaviours, could that information eventually be used against the user?

And just how healthy is it to track every aspect of your health and wellbeing? To protect our future, users need to demand transparent privacy policies which stipulate the purpose and use of data they are generating.

Earlier this year, Gartner forecast that global spending on wearable devices would be over $81.5 billion. But recent changes suggest that as tech becomes invisible, we could begin to move away from wearable tech devices and replace them with washable smart clothes powered by Wi-Fi to monitor your health and every aspect of your daily life.

Human-centered technology that helps inspire and bring comfort to users instead of a distraction is a step in the right direction. Soon, it could be smart clothing gathering data and providing feedback to help you reach your lifestyle goals rather than buying another device. But with governments and large organizations all wanting access to everything from your heart rate to every step you take, we should also exercise caution as well as our body.

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