A recent article in Nature addresses the trouble with wearables, the latest commentary on the persistent challenges of data generated by wearable tracking devices. Ethical concerns, from privacy to security, cannot be ignored.

Companies everywhere are harnessing the power of technology to monitor their emissions, improve employee well-being and make complex scientific analyses available to better understand our health. These innovations have the potential to be powerful solutions to societal challenges and to improve public trust.

Tackling difficult questions

Companies at times also push the limits of technology and privacy internally; they implant embeddable chips under employees’ skin and use biosensing wearable devices to track behaviours. Arguably less intrusive but more prevalent are personalized health technologies: these gather data via applications that advise users as to healthy activities and monitor their progress.

As with many innovative technologies, privacy implications arise. Consumers ask: who has access to my personal health data? Who owns and controls it? Is it shared with third parties? Is it sold or loaned for marketing or advertising purposes? Inadequate responses to these questions, combined with broader privacy concerns, may lead to unintended consequences and repercussions for both consumers and companies.

Putting the public at ease

Governments introduce regulatory frameworks to protect consumers from potential harm. The European Court of Justice ruling on data-sharing practices and the US Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) aspire to address concerns about data protection. But what can the private sector do to quell the ethical, legal and social implications of emerging personalized health technologies?

To effectively address the concerns associated with these technologies, it will take the collaboration and ownership of both public and private sectors. To this end, a 90-day public consultation is currently underway, drafting a set of guidelines for personalized health technology. These guidelines focus on the responsible design of personalized health technologies and the stewardship of generated health data, and all stakeholders are encouraged to provide their input.

Learning from the past

To ensure an equitable future that integrates technology, we must learn from our past achievements and failures. One example of success is the Human Genome Project, which sequenced and mapped all of our genes. At the outset, ethical issues were considered through the creation of the National Human Genome Research Institute, which aimed to “foster basic and applied research on the ethical, legal and social implications of genetic and genomic research for individuals, families and communities”. Adopting a similar approach for personalized health technologies will enable us to reap the rewards of data, analytics and insights – to create a true culture of health.

The Summit on the Global Agenda 2015 will take place in Abu Dhabi on 25-27 October.

Have you read?
Is wearable tech bad for us?
The countries with the highest levels of well-being
A device that keeps you healthy while you sleep

Author: Derek Yach is Chief Health Officer of the Vitality Group and Chairman of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Ageing.

Image: Acer wearable devices Liquid Leap Active are displayed in Taipei, Taiwan, June 2, 2015. REUTERS/Pichi Chuang