UK: Always On, Always Connected?

Last Updated: 30 December 2013
Article by Tim Ryan

The thought of an hour or so without a smartphone or tablet device, let alone a day or even a week, is enough to fill some people with dread.

It's not surprising, therefore, that the next step in the technological revolution is the emergence of devices or technology which users can keep on their body at all times.  We're talking about technology that people can wear, and if this "wearable tech" is online (which most of it inevitably will be), it really could mean that you are always on, always connected.

However, the big question is do we want to be connected and even monitored, or to have our experiences shared, by wearable tech? And for those of us who do, what are the real implications?

One of the highest-profile pieces of wearable tech in recent times, is Google Glass, a highly-portable connected computer which is built into a pair of spectacles. It was tested in an interesting way, recently, by ATP World Tour tennis player Bethanie Mattek-Sands during her time at the Wimbledon Championships. Other uses in the world of sport include "Nike+", which incorporates connected technology into items such as wristbands, and the Sony SmartWatch which is popular with those who want the functionality of their Android phone really close to hand.

The furore which blew-up several years ago over allegations that iPhones were tracking and storing users' every movement is a real-world example of how technology can, or at least be perceived to, cross the blurred line from usefulness into intrusiveness. So, what will be the privacy consequences of the "always connected" running shoes, watch, belt or headset?

Whilst wearable tech is still early in its evolution, the view is that it's more a question of "when" rather than "if" significant concerns arise over privacy, or perhaps more pertinently lack of privacy. Wearable tech clearly has the capacity for being used in a way which results in the user or others being "monitored", whether by location, recorded audio, images or video, or a combination of multimedia. This may happen deliberately or as a side-effect of intended use, or even at the other end of the scale as a new form of surveillance, perhaps.

Data collected from wearable tech may then be shared, whether intentionally or not, via the myriad ways in which we communicate or broadcast ourselves nowadays. This will almost inevitably involve sharing by way of the cloud or a variety of social media platforms. Large quantities of data or simply regular posts of data may be involved, depending on the technology in question, and of course there are no geographical boundaries to that. Your connected glasses or other headset could potentially digitise and stream your whole day to the online community, worldwide.

Issues of data protection will likely arise. If the users of wearable tech have their personal data captured by a system, issues of consent (or lack of it), transparency and security will all come into play, as well as questions over storage and use of that data.  If your device automatically checks-you-in wherever you go, it might elevate the concept of big brother to a whole new level. For some this might be fine, for others it will certainly not be, so issues may arise where those in the wearable tech user's physical or virtual vicinity (e.g., social media contacts) will automatically be identified and "tagged" or "checked-in" by the technology. Currently, a few clicks of a mouse or taps on a screen can make this happen. However, wearable tech could mean that simply wandering into a coffee shop or a bar would broadcast your presence, and maybe the presence of those with you, to the world.

Further, concerns about possible IP infringement as a result of wearable tech may prove well-founded and IP abuse could become even more difficult to prevent and control than it is now. If a connected headset or other device constantly monitors and records a user's surroundings, perhaps streaming collected data to a website, social media platform or other online presence, then IP infringement could potentially occur almost instantaneously and on a mass scale as a result of wearable tech users simply viewing a collection in an art gallery, reading a book, going to the cinema, watching live sport or attending a concert.

Who would be to 'blame' for infringements of IP, data breaches or other issues arising from wearable tech and who should be regulated? The user? His or her employer, in certain situations, perhaps? The tech provider? The network provider? The social network? All could be in the firing line, to a greater or lesser degree depending on the context and the consequences. Put simply, it's uncertain, just as the consequences of the use or abuse of existing technology can be, without detailed analysis.

It's likely that ever-more complicated scenarios and "layers" of responsibility and liability will arise from wearable tech. As has been the case with existing networked technologies in the last few years, particularly in the field of digital media, the perceptions of wearable tech from users and wider society will likely transform and businesses will position themselves to take advantage of new opportunities. Law and regulation will, of course, endeavour to keep pace.

Crucially, a balance must be achieved by lawmakers, advisers and others involved at the front line of this to ensure that the evolution of technology and commercial progress is not hindered by the legal and regulatory framework.  Continued developments in and harmonisation of laws and regulations will be part of treading the fine, and often blurred, line between technological development and the protection of rights. Whilst the former will not always be complementary for fairly obvious reasons, those involved in creating and enforcing the legal and regulatory framework and advising in this area clearly need to be creative and pragmatic, as well as having a detailed understanding of the relevant technology, to achieve the necessary levels of balance and progress.

This article was previously published in the October 2013 edition of Intellectual Property Magazine.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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