The Apple-fueled Smartwatch hype and the “good times” for surveillance

Apple WatchSince Edward Snowden has begun to reveal the dimensions of the mass surveillance conducted by intelligence agencies, the awareness for the pitfalls of the digital age has increased significantly. At least among many tech savvy creators and consumers, the initial child-like curiosity about the new possibilities has been replaced to some degree by a more nuanced view. While optimism among this group remains, there is now at least somewhat of a real consensus about the possible threat of a full-fledged future surveillance society.

Unfortunately, acknowledging this threat and actively doing something against it are two very different things. According to some surveys, some changes in user behaviour have occurred in the Post-Snowden era. However, the convenience, excitement and temptation of further integration of digital technology as well as the real potential of large-scale improvements in life quality, education, health and finance for people all around the world, mean that we keep getting closer to the dystopic picture painted by sceptics. A bit end-to-end encryption here and there won’t change that. I myself am as guilty in this as most other people. I might write a text like this one, but an hour later check my smartphone’s fitness tracking app to learn about my running performance. It is a dilemma in which a real solution seems to be completely out of reach.

An obvious contradiction

However, it feels like an obvoius contradiction that many of the people who have expressed their concerns about systematic mass surveillance now eagerly line up for an Apple Watch or any other smartwatch, seemingly not wasting a thought on the fact that a universal wearable like that is one more major step towards a world of constant and ubiquitous surveillance.

After having read many accounts and reviews of smartwatch owners, including this especially insightful one, my conclusion is that for the moment, smartwatches can be best seen as secondary interfaces to our smartphones, optimized for certain use cases. Use cases in which it is either not practical to pull out the smartphone, or in which the wearable-nature of a smartwatch offers exclusive functionality, such as the constant measuring of the heart rate or other body functions. In addition, and mostly valid for the Apple Watch, a smartwatch can take the role of a status object or at least become a way to communicate a certain degree of curiosity and affinity to technology.

Concluding further, currently smartwatches cannot be considered essential to the majority of the owners, yet. The hundreds of thousands of people who are ordering an Apple Watch these days have no idea how they will feel about the device in one year. They might have come to depend on the device like they depend on their smartphone today. Or maybe they end up using the device only during fitness activities or sleep. In the worst case, the Apple Watch will have been forgotten inside a drawer. Unlikely, but let’s not rule it out completely.

Consumers who shell out a minimum of $350 for an Apple Watch obviously do not hope that the latter scenario will occur. Apart from some notorious gadget lovers who purchase every new high-profile device without thinking too much about its long-term added value, buyers of the Apple Watch certainly express their willingness to integrate the device into their daily life, possibly to the point at which they feel that something is missing if they left home without the watch.

Quiet acceptance of more surveillance

But the acceptance of this course of events is also the quite acceptance of even more surveillance. A type of surveillance that, due to the proximity of the device to the human body, gets more intimate and intruding than any other type before. At least in theory, the NSA, the GCHQ or other intelligence agencies would get the chance to conduct systematic mass surveillance of basic body functions. I am a layman in regards to the insights that can be derived from measuring these things. But based on what we learned so far from the agencies infinite hunger for more data, one has to assume that they must love the idea of being able to enhance citizens’ communication, activity and meta data with body data. A person for whom the algorithm finds slightly suspicious online behaviour, and whose body values indicate a high level of unusual stress? Flagged for closer examination.

In its current state, the Apple Watch and most other leading smartwatches do not come with cellular connectivity, instead relying on Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to connect with smartphones and/or the Internet. That leads to periods of no connectivity, which prevents a 24/7 tracking of smartwatch-owners through unauthorized third parties. But this “obstacle” will eventually go away. Wi-Fi hotspots become increasingly ubiquitous. It is also likely that future iterations of flagship smartwatches will be equipped with 4G (or later 5G) chips. From that point on, there is little in between the wearers of smartwatches and the surveillers.

A mass-adoption of smartwatches is “good” news for surveillers

As it wrote in the beginning, consumers face a huge dilemma: While smartwatches do not seem essential from the get-go to many, the history of the digital age taught us that we usually suck at evaluating the future perceived or actual value of new technology. Smartwatches could certainly turn out to be a boon for its owners, improving their lives through less distraction, more focus and better data and insights about themselves. They also might lead to the mass adoption of the principles of self quantification.

However, if this happens – if smartwatches end up becoming as widespread as smartphones are today, and if their owners wear them pretty much all the time  – this also means unprecedented new opportunities for the surveillance apparatus. Doubting that this vast trove of additional data about citizens would not be exploited in some way or another means dreaming. And of course this is not only about intelligence agencies. Insurance companies are already laying the groundwork for a new business model, in which their terms and pricing are dependent on monitoring the customer’s lifestyle. The rise of a sensor-rich, always-on wearable is the best thing to happen for those organizations that are pushing this plan.

The media coverage and public response to last week’s launch of the Apple Watch was massive. Correct me if I am wrong, but hardly anywhere surveillance as a “side-issue” of smartwatches was discussed. It is like the excitement and glamor of the launch, orchestrated by Apple’s perfect PR and product marketing, makes everyone forget about the potentially huge downside of a currently non-essential product category such as a smartwatch.

I am aware that it is not realistic to constantly make perfect consumer decisions based on the complex realities of our times. But let’s agree on one thing: After everything the public learned about mass surveillance over the past years, widespread integration of smartwatches into the daily life is another invitation to the NSA (and others) to increase tracking and data collection. So whenever a future scandal reveals unauthorized tracking of smartwatch users and their data – which inevitably will happen – let’s skip the outrage. We opened ourselves up to that in the first place.

(Photo: Flickr/LWYang, CC BY 2.0)

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