Just as Google announced a textile that can act as a touchscreen, employees are asking questions about employer access to data generated by wearables.
The wearables market is expected to climb next year to 91 million units. You can have smart shoes, a smart watch and, soon, smart pants. But how smart is it to have your boss poring over your heart rate or sleep monitor results?
An NPR story suggests that older employees are dubious about sharing personal data generated by wearables with their employers. Younger people appear more open to the idea, as long it is intended to help them bolster their careers.
In many ways, this workplace issue parallels larger privacy concerns over NSA collection of metadata collected from emails and phone calls by American citizens. Congress just enacted a rollback of some government data collection practices.
The question in many revolves around who "owns" the vast amount of data generated by our digital tools. If we wear a headband that can read our brainwaves while at work, does an employer have the right to look at the results? If so, to what end? And how do you ensure interpretations are objective.
One of the people interviewed in the NPR story said she went out of her way to get eight hours of sleep every night, assuming that would impress her boss. It didn't. He concluded she slept too long.
The prevailing presumption is that people are hired to do a job. It may be hard or may be easy, depending on the individual. But does that really matter?
Employers may argue they have a reason to look at diagnostic information because they provide health insurance and other benefits such as paid sick leave.
Some employees may be okay with shared personal information because it serves as a discipline to eat better, drink less and sleep more.
But that still leaves unanswered the question of access to potentially sensitive data, just because it's there to look at. What happens if an employee refuses to share data or don a wearable? Does that become a cause for termination? And how do you ensure that personal privacy isn't invaded and shared information isn't abused?
This is a web of issues that probably hasn't reached the radar screens of many companies, nonprofits and public agencies. But the growth of wearables in the market will create an opportunity to generate mounds more of data – and a desire to gather and analyze it. Don't wait for smart pants to look into it.