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Wearable gadgets and smart watches: Do I need one and are they safe from hackers?

Hannah Boland
Fitbit devices, for example, are end-to-end encrypted, meaning data is scrambled - © 2016 Bloomberg Finance LP

It almost seemed like wearables wouldn't take off. Rewind about six years, and you'd be hard pressed to find anyone willing to buy Google Glass, the internet giant's bid to capture the market for augmented reality glasses.

In fairness, the specific insult for those who chose to buy Google Glass – "glassholes" – may have been slightly off-putting. 

But, since then, such devices have come a long way. Now, all the major brands are getting in on the wearables game, from the Apple Watch to Facebook's Oculus virtual reality headsets. And as a flurry of new devices come to the market, we ask, what counts as a wearable, and are they safe?

How do you define 'wearables'?

Any electronic device that can be worn, be it as an accessory or within clothing, is classed as a wearable. When you hear the terms “wearable technology”, “wearable devices” or “wearable gadgets”, they’re all referring to the same things. 

Examples range from smartwatches and fitness trackers to augmented reality glasses and connected earbuds, and it is a space where new products are springing up on almost a daily basis. 

This is because wearable technology has been rising in popularity in recent years – according to a survey by Ericsson, almost half of us now expect them to replace smartphones in the future. Of those of us who already wear some form of “wearable technology”, two in five claim they feel naked without them and a quarter sleep wearing their device.

How do they actually work?

Wearable devices work in a whole range of different ways because the category is so broad, but there are a couple of specific areas where lots of products have focused. 

One of these is fitness trackers. Big names include Fitbit, Samsung and Garmin, and how many of the devices work is they have sensors in them which can detect motion, and use an algorithm to then determine how many steps you’ve taken. There are also other sensors, so with Fitbit, for example, an “altimeter sensor” is also embedded into the devices to track when you’re walking up and down floors, and heart-rate monitors help log your sleep. 

Smart glasses, meanwhile, are essentially wearable computers, and can be paired with smartphones to project notifications onto the glasses. Some are controlled with gestures on the frame, whilst others have smart assistants embedded in them, allowing you to speak commands out loud. 

A category of wearables which is attracting growing attention is “hearables”. Smart earwear is expected to boom in the coming years. IDC, the research firm, predicts shipments will grow to 105.3 million units in 2023, from 72 million units this year.

For years, “hearables” largely just meant headphones which had Bluetooth connectivity so could be paired to a smartphone, allowing people to play music off them without needing a cable, or take calls, but now they can do much more. 

People’s headphones or earbuds can be fitted with sensors, meaning they can now also act as fitness trackers, taking into account your motion, or could detect things like a fall for older people. They can also come equipped with smart assistants, meaning people can do things such as ask for recipes and set reminders on the move. 

Are they useful?

Wearable devices can be incredibly useful. For one thing, they generally make life easier. Whether it’s being able to leave the house without your wallet, and instead just pay for things using your smartwatch, or not having to lace up your trainers, because they do that automatically, wearables can cut down the amount of time you spend doing mundane tasks.

But, in fact, there is a lot more wearables are able to do, particularly when it comes to health. 

Apple for example last year unveiled new features for its Apple Watch to allow it to detect when someone has fallen heavily and not got back up, and automatically call the emergency services. 

Yet, Apple is not alone in seeing the benefits wearables can bring in this space. Researchers at Microsoft developed a wrist-worn device which could reduce the tremors associated with Parkinson’s disease by vibration signals.

And another smaller company, Exosystems, created a wearable device for patients undergoing rehab and physio, using data gathered about them to personalise a physical stimulation program and help motivate patients to complete exercises.

There is also a role for wearables in making people safer – with things like “smart caps” to let workers know when they are too tired and need a break, or cycling helmets which can detect when a rider has fallen and send notifications to emergency contacts, already being developed.

“Wearable technology can augment workers’ physical and perceptual abilities and help keep them safe. It’s time for companies to assess the potential of this technology and consider its impact on workforce planning,” Deloitte managing director David Schatsky and associate Navya Kumar said. 

Can hackers get into them?

With a growing number of devices on the market, and the huge swathes of data they’ll be able to gather on wearers, it’s no surprise some concerns have been raised over their safety. In Ericsson’s survey on wearables, more than half of existing users of the devices say they acknowledge it was very likely wearables will be vulnerable to hacking, data breaches and viruses in the next five years.

And, as they take on more prominence in the healthcare market as well, with some being developed to help monitor health and alert doctors to potential issues, it’s likely these fears will only mount.

A report by the Royal Academy of Engineering last year warned “cyberattacks that compromise data integrity, such as consistent spoofing of data reported by sensors, can remain undetected for a long time yet have potentially severe consequences”.

So, the question remains, can wearables be hacked? 

The short answer is yes. Security has got a lot better for a lot of devices, but there are so many products on the market now that some have clear security flaws.

When you use a wearable device, more often that not the data collected from the sensors is being sent back to the company’s cloud, so it can analyse and personalise your experience. Many of them also connect to smartphones using Bluetooth, so that people can monitor their activity through apps, but all these flows of data open up more opportunities for hackers to gain access to data, or provide a backdoor into the smartphone. 

If people have agreed to a number of permissions with the devices, such as giving them access to location data and account information, this could also put that data at risk. 

Are there things I can do to stop mine being hacked?

For one thing, you can make sure to keep your device updated and running the latest version of its operating system, and if there is an associated app, make sure to keep that updated as well.

According to cybersecurity experts, people should also not store any critical personal information on their devices, such as their bank account numbers or addresses, and should not connect their device up to an unsecure Bluetooth or Wi-Fi network.

But, the key thing is to always go with reputable brands and the latest, up-to-date products, as they’re more likely to have better security protections. 

Fitbit devices, for example, are end-to-end encrypted, meaning data is scrambled whilst it passes from the device into the cloud, and all data on Apple Watches is encrypted even when it is backed up to the cloud. 

Regulators are also not sitting on their hands here, and under recently introduced Europe-wide data protection rules, companies developing wearables are required to complete a DPIA, which is a process to assess the risks of their technology.