Is wearable technology an ethical nightmare for the communications industry?
Yesterday evening the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) hosted a debate in the Houses of Parliament where the motion was put forward that wearable technology will be an ethical nightmare for the communications industry.
Stephen Davies, founder of Bionic.ly, put forward the motion and was backed up by leading PR industry blogger, Neville Hobson. Opposing the motion was Stephen Waddington, President of CIPR, who was backed up by Claire Walker, CEO of Firefly Comms Group. The debate was chaired by Lord Clemtent-Jones.
Stephen Davies kicked off the event by putting forward that wearable technology in its current form provides data that lacks real value to anyone other than the user. It is the furture generations of the technology that present the issue.
The future includes wearable technology where a smart contact lens will act just as Google Glass does today, but also provide metrics on other people. For example, being able to see if another person is nervous or lying. Is this ethical to use in job interviews?
But wearable technology is what we have today. Tomorrow’s world is actually about implantables, says Davies, where there will be no need for a smart contact lens – as we’ll be able to purchase bionic retinas. There’ll be no need for FitBits because computer chips the size of cells will be inside our bodies.
If we think there is a plethora of data from wearables now, you ain’t seen nothing yet. And letting the communications industry loose on this data is going to create a paranoid society, where every move, genome or even thought is tracked by the highest bidder.
Stephen Waddington stepped up to oppose the motion. Wearables, says Waddington, is simply a new iteration of technology and should be viewed as such. The insight that can be gathered on people will help improve relationships between people, health professionals, the state and, yes, even brands that are looking to sell you their product.
Waddington reminded us that we are in fact already used to being tracked heavily by the state and private companies, in the form of CCTV, which we accept as very ordinary. Therefore, will people be so adverse to giving up their body data in return for better products and services that are heavily personalised to them?
People are already giving up their data for the same bargain in the form of social media. When we post a thought to Facebook or Twitter it is used by advertisers to tailor their marketing. Say you are thirsty online and Coca Cola will pop right up. Society today accepts this.
Lastly, Waddington pointed out that the technology we see in wearables has actually been around for years. It is simply just becoming much more available, thanks to Moores Law, where computer power has increased, size has shrunk and so has the price.
Seconding the motion was Neville Hobson, who suggested that while the debate demands a black and white view, this area is incredibly grey. The communications industry, says Hobson, does not really understand what wearable technology is; it thinks in terms of FitBits and Google Glass and does not have the forward looking view that Davies discussed.
Moreover, what can be considered a wearable? A car generally isn’t, but they already measure our temperature, our alertness, they track our position and tell us where to go. This is the same level of technology discussed in wearables and is open to just the same exploitation.
Using the example of Google Glass, Hobson highlighted how wearable technology is already causing a great deal of confusion – in cinemas. There have been incidents where people wearing Glass in a cinema have been removed by the police and questioned. This is despite the fact Glass can only record 20 minutes of video, that the image quality will be far too poor to distribute and without considering what may happen when IMDB or similar decide to create a second screen app, intended for use in cinemas.
Ultimately, the question is whether wearable technology is an ethical nightmare. Hobson says that yes, it is – if we do nothing to protect the consumer, and if we disregard the trust people put in companies to behave ethically with their data. One wrong move by a rogue brand could severely hurt the industry.
Claire Walker spoke last and seconded Waddington’s opposition of the motion. Walker argued that new technology has always come along and sparked a similar debate. She has seen the hype time and time again and has seen the following realisation that the industry will behave, self-regulate and even realise they can’t do all that they thought they could anyway.
Walker suggested that the volume of data we generate through our devices is so expansive that, while trends can be identified easily, spotting behaviour of particular individuals is much trickier than it appears. This also doesn’t even take into account that people own their data and can easily opt out of sharing it with external companies.
Codes of practice also prevent this from being a nightmare says Walker. The CIPR, who hosted the debate, have very strict codes, with clear examples, that each member signs up to, adheres to and will not simply forget in the excitement of wearable technology. Is this an ethical nightmare? No, says Walker, because the industry, as a whole, will behave ethically.
Following the statements made by the speakers, the debate was opened to the floor and was ultimately voted on. The motion was not supported, as the majority voted that wearable technology is not an ethical nightmare for the communications industry.
However, it is important to be reminded that the audience were mostly communications professionals, who do sign up to the CIPR code of practice. Not all do. While we may be able to trust those in the room to behave ethically, can we really trust the industry as a whole not to abuse the data and consumer’s trust? Continue the debate in the comments below.