Wearable technology and why it may be getting under your skin

By Hugh Cadman, Specialist Content Creator

In a moment of madness – I know, I shouldn’t have done it – I found myself alone, watching a recording of the House of Commons Treasury Committee.

The MPs were grilling the Chancellor of the Exchequer about the bank levy. Forgive me, but instead of listening to George Osborne’s world-weary explanation I found my eye was caught by the wrist of the man asking most of the questions.

The 52-year-old MP for Wyre Forest, Mark Garnier was sporting a fitness monitoring device designed, I suspect, by a privately-owned Californian company named after a part of the human anatomy.

Hardly earth-shattering, but it gave pause for thought about the in-roads being made by wearable tech. Did Garnier, a former fund manager, use the device’s smart alarm feature, so he would be awoken at the optimum time during boring speeches, based on his sleep patterns?

And of course surveillance is never far away from the discussion whenever wearables are mentioned. So it did cross my mind that the whips’ office might now be tracking MPs to ensure they are where they say they are.

The fear of surveillance may be one of the reasons for a certain reluctance in the UK when it comes to wearable technology. A report from Accenture last year found only 29 per cent of Brits expressed a desire to buy a piece of wearable technology, which was significantly lower than the global figure.

Nonetheless, it is generally accepted that adoption of wearable technology will increase as devices become more multi-functional. Perhaps all the bizarre hysteria and camping out in front of stores is justified and the launch of the Apple Watch will encourage mass uptake of watches that do everything.

For many businesses, tracking devices seem an obvious way to ensure dispersed employees are working as efficiently and as hard as they should be. In the US, fitness trackers worn by employees are being used to lower insurance premiums and Gartner reckons most companies with more than 500 workers will offer the technology to their workers next year.

How far will it go? Last week it was reported that NFC-enabled chips have been implanted into a group of Swedish office workers, happy to leave their redundant key fobs and entry cards at home. For these apostles of wearable tech, the ability to pay for milk and coffee with the swipe of a hand outweighs any concerns about surveillance or the sense of being robotised.

Most of us however, don’t want to be turned into a cyborg in return for loyalty points. The ignorant like me also fear the consequences of malfunction – of somehow triggering the lock of an automated urinal and being trapped with disappointed Leeds supporters.

As ever in life, it is a question of balance. People who choose to have a payment chip implanted may well find it unacceptable that their employer requires them to wear a tracking and monitoring device. On the other hand, we all know about the delivery driver caught skiving in the pub when his van’s tracking device stopped dead at the same location every afternoon.

The danger is that wearable technology becomes entirely associated with surveillance and the robotising of people; an unwanted alien presence ready to catch everyone out.

For the time being the makers of Jawbone fitness and health tracking wristbands say their policy is not to catch movement cheats – the people who shake their wrists a lot in order to look active. But the developer section on their website says it might be possible in future…