March 11, 2020

Smartwatches and wearable technologies are popular consumer electronics because of the potential health benefits. These wearables can detect how often you move, your heart rate and sleep cycle and even connect through bluetooth to make phone calls and receive text messages. Smartwatches help consumers stay healthy and manage their time more efficiently — all from their wrist. While these users are conscious about their physical health, are they also maintaining their cybersecurity health as well?

The information a smartwatch gathers might not seem essential — it’s not like a user is sharing their social security number — but cybersecurity threats and hacks could happen. Device hacking can secure a lot of data about a person’s health, and potentially cause harm in unexpected ways.

“The information on a smartwatch, potentially monitoring a number of health parameters simultaneously (heart rate, arrhythmia, sleep cycle and possibly even blood glucose in the near future), would be sufficient data for a sophisticated machine learning algorithm to use in determining the likelihood of and latency to a major morbid or mortal event, such as a heart attack or stroke,” says IEEE Senior member Douglas Walled. “This data, if stolen from an individual, could be used against them via the refusal (or greatly increased cost) of health insurance. Worse, the silent collection of aggregate data like this from many individuals is exactly what would be required to create such a discriminatory algorithm in the first place.”

Essentially, a cyber hacker can take stolen health data and threaten to share information on unhealthy habits or medical illnesses to providers, which in turn, could drive up an individual’s health insurance costs.

Smartwatches and wearables are especially beneficial for elderly individuals who need more care and monitoring. Yet, older populations may be more cautious about these devices. “It is important that such systems are thought of for the elderly population, from the way information is presented to considering aesthetic and usability issues,” says IEEE member Anselmo Frizera Neto. “The dissemination of artificial intelligence tools using sensitive user data will depend on increasing user confidence and developing systems with greater reliability, considering the risks of unnecessary exposure of personal information.”

Healthy cybersecurity habits can deter potential data thefts. Because a smartwatch is an IoT-connected device, ensuring that you have a strong password is the first defense in protecting your privacy.

“People usually think they have good passwords, but in reality they are often not as creative or complex as they imagine,” says Walled. “An easy to remember phrase with a couple of consistent rules (always capitalize the first letter of a word, period between words, replace ‘a’ with ‘@’ and ‘o’ with ‘zero,’ end with ‘!,’ for example) will make for an extremely hack-resistant password, and it can be easy to remember without always reusing your dog’s name and the year you got him or her.”

A smartwatch provides a variety of valuable health data, that helps keep users on track and living their best life. Just because there is a potential for cyber attacks, doesn’t mean we should be ditching the device just yet. By ensuring the correct protection from cyber attackers is in place, users will reap the benefits in full.


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