As COVID-19 continues to spread around the world, research organizations are trying to leverage wearable technology and crowd-source data to aid in the fight against the global pandemic. But many are wondering if giving up on user privacy for the greater good comes with a price.
Current data indicates that the use of wearables has tripled since 2014, and that the estimated number of users of digital therapeutics will increase from 4.5 million people in 2018 to 130 million people by 2023. In addition, about 55 million people in the U.S. currently use a wearable device. With so many people tracking their heart rate, body temperature, sleeping habits and much more, research organizations hope that data from popular wearable tech (such as Fitbit and Apple Watch) can assist with detecting early signs of a virus or infection.
The most notable research performed to date includes Kinsa Health, which sells a smart thermometer that syncs with a mobile application. The data obtained by the mobile app allows the organization to track and trend users’ personal information in real time and by geolocation.
Don’t have a smart thermometer? No problem. Smartphone users can download the Kinsa Health app and enter their vitals manually. Currently, Kinsa is tracking users’ data via smart thermometers and the data pulled from their crowd-sourcing efforts. Data collected from both sets of users include body temperatures and leveraging the data to track the COVID-19 outbreak within their own health weather map.
Other wearable research includes the Oura smart ring. Oura rings track health data while users sleep. Oura has partnered with the University of California, San Francisco, to collect data from Oura ring users. According to the UCSF TemPredict study, data collected by the rings combined with daily symptom surveys are tracked and trended to identify patterns to aid in combating the outbreak.
Similar to the Oura ring, the Scripps Research Translational Institute is leveraging data from smart watches and activity trackers to track and trend infectious diseases such as influenza and COVID-19. The DETECT, or Digital Engagement and Tracking for Early Control and Treatment, study is open to the public and is an app-based research study. According to Scripps research, the study is evaluating users’ health data related to heart rates and sleeping patterns. Users opt into the study by downloading the MyDataHelps app and granting permission to access their wearable data.
Privacy and wearable tech
Are people in the U.S. ready to share their data to help fight against global pandemics? In a 2018 survey performed by statista.com, 90% of the 2,301 respondents were willing to share their wearable data with their doctor.
As more people are willing to share their data, the possibilities to combat against the spread of COVID-19 increase. Recently, Apple and Google announced they are working together to develop contact tracing by leveraging the Bluetooth technology within mobile devices. How does it work? According to Apple, the technology includes application programming interfaces and operating system-level technology to assist in enabling contact tracing. Data will be pulled from public health authorities and integrated into both an iOS and Android app. Users can download the app and opt-in to sharing their location and their COVID-19 testing results. If you come in close proximity of another user that has tested positive for COVID-19, the app will let you know. The goal is to help flatten the curve of the pandemic but many are skeptical that users are willing to opt-in and share their medical history and physical location with the two tech giants.
Is your wearable data safe?
While the use of wearables yields many benefits, the data is transferred from a wearable device to an app. According to Verizon’s 2020 Mobile Security index, 39% of the 876 professionals surveyed indicated experiencing a security compromise involving mobile/Internet of Things devices during the past year. This is a 6% increase from the prior year. With the number of mobile app breaches increasing, there is an enhanced risk exposure. Is the data transfer monitored? Is this data truly anonymized or de-identified? Most research organizations collecting data say it is, but with so many exposure points it is only a matter of time for attackers to find vulnerabilities and leverage them for their own schemes.
Technology, health care and life sciences organizations with wearable technology must be aware of their own exposure points and implement controls that will mitigate their risk of data exposures. Considerations include:
- Do we expect additional wearable adoption from COVID-19?
- Can the technology and data integrate with telehealth platforms?
- How long is the data being kept?
- Who owns and controls the data
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