Should Invisible Wearable Devices Have You Worried?

By Markets Fool.com

Are you ready to change your expectations for digital privacy?

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In just a couple of years, wearable devices might record you at any time and without any visible signs of the process. Business analyst firm Gartner recently released a report on smart wearables. In it, you'll find a couple of game-changing predictions:

  • As early as 2017, 30% of wearable computing devices will be "completely unobtrusive to the eye."
  • Meanwhile, head-mounted displays will move into the mainstream and shift more than 25 million devices by 2018.

Put these two predictions together and expectations of privacy from digital recordings go out the window. There will be millions of these mobile computing devices in the everyday world all around us, often equipped with microphones and cameras, not to mention the ability to upload their recordings to social networks, YouTube, or any other online portal.

Google Glass is an early and very noticeable example of wearable computing. Source: Google.

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Again, many of these recording devices won't be as obvious as today's Google Glass, or even the upcoming Apple Watch. Many gadgets will be easily confused with totally standard eyeglasses, watches, pieces of jewelry, or even contact lenses.

And that's just the beginning of an even larger trend, according to Gartner.

"Obtrusive wearables already on the market, like smart glasses, are likely to develop new designs that disguise their technological components completely," said Gartner research director Annette Zimmermann. In other words, anything your smartphone can do today might be moved into a less obvious design in the next couple of years. It's more than just a new type of gadgetry moving onto the market -- the devices we already use will start to camouflage themselves as bracelets, sunglass frames, or belt buckles.

Are you OK with that?
Actually, let me restate that question. Will you be OK with all of this?

Trying to stop these technology trends seems as pointless as protesting digital media streams, outlawing camera-equipped smartphones, or halting the sunrise. The technologies involved in creating the new wave of "unobtrusive" smart devices are always getting smaller, cheaper, more efficient, and easier to network.

If American consumer electronics names like Apple and Google don't eventually use them to create near-invisible smart wearables, then some low-budget foreign shops will -- eventually forcing the brand-name gadget builders to follow suit or lose out on a massive growth market. The invisible Apple headset will come, you may never notice that people are wearing it, and they might record what you're doing anyway.

So it's nigh-impossible to stop these devices from coming. But then, we've heard this song before, and the world didn't end that time, either.

Ten years ago, the first cell phones with built-in cameras started making their way onto the market. Privacy hawks raised a furor over the picture-snapping atrocities that might result from having a tiny camera in every pocket, and new laws were enacted to stop it. On a federal level, the Video Voyeurism Prevention Act of 2004 tied fines and jail time to sharing intimate video or images where the target "has a reasonable expectation of privacy."

But did we get a tsunami of peeping toms invading the locker rooms and public bathrooms of America with camera phones ready to shoot? Hardly. The big privacy infractions in the camera phone era have largely come from indecent selfies or not-to-be-shared photo sessions, leaked out to a much wider audience than intended. Just because I have a camera in my phone doesn't mean that I'm planning to record everything around me and then put the results on YouTube.

Today, nobody worries about the privacy implications of the latest iPhone's fine camera stills or powers of high-definition video recording.

Instead, privacy hawks worry about the face-mounted cameras on Google Glass headsets and other less-obvious camera shapes. If you can take pictures without lifting a phone to do it, then where will the privacy intrusions end?

Apple Watch is a much more subtle wearable device. What's the next logical step? Source: Apple.

What happens next?
I expect another round of legislation, followed by loud protests to stop the progress of technology. Then the new wearables become popular, and then...

Silence.

At that point, I expect the privacy wars to have moved on to another, still undreamed-of, battlefield. In general, people will be able to focus on how wearable computing improves their daily lives, much like we do with smartphones now.

Movie theaters will roll requests to disable your wearable devices while a film is playing. At concerts, some bands might ask for the same favor before thundering into the first chord -- while others just ask that you make them look good on YouTube.

It's another short-lived privacy storm, set to blow over in a couple of years. Short-term pain notwithstanding, device designers like Google and Apple would be silly not to ride the wearable trend in its infancy.

If you're explicitly not OK with that, short of moving to a secluded log cabin with no windows, I'm afraid there's very little to do about it. Please sound off in the comments section below to tell me how you feel about the issue.

The article Should Invisible Wearable Devices Have You Worried? originally appeared on Fool.com.

Anders Bylund owns shares of Google (A shares). The Motley Fool recommends Apple and Google (A and C shares). The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and Google (A and C shares). Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.