The tech version of rock, paper, scissors: Does convenience trump privacy?

By Laura Haight

Originally published as The Digital Maven in Upstate Business Journal, May 10, 2013

Technology in the news recently raises a lot of questions about privacy and whether we can hold onto our rights to it. Does technology trump privacy? Or convenience beat down security? It’s the digital version of rock, paper, scissors.

Hey, this is a private call!: Maybe not. This week in connection with the Boston bombing investigation, we learned that information about our cell phone calls, text messages and voicemails exists in some deep digital vault somewhere, waiting for a federal warrant to bring them to life. No, they aren’t recording your calls, but carriers capture and keep information on every call including your location, the cell phone towers you connected to, the number you called, the date and time you called and the duration of the call.

That information can disclose a lot, for example, if you were driving while on the phone and the call was handed off from one tower to another, we could know where you were traveling from and going to. The American Civil Liberties Union has compiled information on the what is retained by each of the six major US carriers.

Can you really get closer to your smartphone? Sure, you can wear it: The next Under Armour workout shirt you buy may have an app built into it. The company unveiled Armour39 last week - a concept design of a touchscreen t-shirt that tracks your workout stats. It’s just the first step in a move toward wearable technology - the Next Big Thing.

Cool, right? Well yes, but as with all things digital there’s a growing privacy concern.

As businesses, there’s nothing more valuable to us than data. And wearable tech provides a wealth of it. The fitness band you wear 24X7 to track your workouts, steps and calories burned, is gathering data on when you sleep, what you eat, where you are, whether your heart rate is up or your blood pressure spikes. Trouble sleeping at night - some computer system somewhere knows that. These data points, combined with other data points, such as where you shop (GPS on your phone, cell phone records) and what you eat (credit card charges at restaurants and maybe that grocery list app ono your smartphone) can tell marketers a lot about your health and your habits.

Through the looking glass - with Google: One of the most intriguing new wearable tech products is Google Glass - a headset with an embedded wearable computer that responds to your voice and interacts visually and audibly with you and others.

Of course, Google Glass is prohibitively expensive and right now only pre-registered beta testers willing to drop a cool $1,500 per pair have them. Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt announced recently that open sales would begin in 2014. He wouldn’t spill on a price tag.

Is Glass going to be a game changer or a white elephant? Who knows. There are already some outstanding examples of its potential  like the high school physics teacher who takes a class of kids on a bicycle tour of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland through his eyes. He interacts with them without lifting a finger and shows them something incredible.

Then there’s White Men Wearing Google Glass (a website) and other less-than-stellar lowlights.

A marketer’s dream come true: A blog post this week in AdAge, an industry publication for marketers and sales executives, talked about the marketing opportunities inherent in the coming age of wearable technology. The writer notes that it is too soon to tell whether any of these new concepts will be game-changers. But he correctly sees the real opportunity - and - at the same time - the real problem: The future of computing is generating billions of data points gathered through the ubiquitous tech we use every day.

The companies that win will be those that leverage this information, connecting the dots to create pictures of consumer behavior and to customize marketing and product information tailored to each individual consumer.

But while you might love the convenience and the opportunities you get with each new technological stride, know that each step leaves your privacy just a little further behind - and there’s no rear-view on Google Glass.

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