Sunday, 13 July 2014

House of Commons Debate: Ethics of Wearable Technology

I had the unexpected privilege last week of being invited to a House of Commons debate on the ethical impact of wearable technologies. The debate took place in Committee Room 10, was organised by The Debating Group and sponsored by CIPR. As a cardiologist with an interest in how these technologies are impacting wellbeing and healthcare, I was interested in how other professionals perceive these technologies.
The motion was: Wearable Technology is an Ethical Nightmare for PR, Marketing and Communications Professionals. Stephen Davies argued in favour of the motion. Stephen Waddington opposed. Much to my surprise, the motion lost by an almost 2:1 vote.  
For me, the debate is really about how Big Data will impact the future, and the ethical challenges this presents ('The Data Dilemma'). As individuals we continuously produce unique datasets. How this data is captured and utilised will present huge opportunities and challenges in the future. Teasing apart this 'jungle of data streams' will not be straightforward.
Supermarkets monitor our shopping habits and can predict our interest in health, our relationship status, whether or not we are trying to lose weight or get pregnant and so on. Internet search engines monitor our browsing habits and again predict our interests and activities. All this data has huge value but also the potential to cause harm if shared without our knowledge. In Japan, billboards are using facial recognition technology to target specific adverts to potential customers. As you board a flight, a flight attendant wearing Google Glass will know more about your various habits than the person you might be travelling with.
There are huge benefits to be reaped from Big Data. There are also huge challenges, and in particular ethical challenges, to society and organisations harvesting this highly personal data. Continuous personal health data (generated by wearable tech) combined with genomic data (owned by organisations like 23andMe), and shopping habits could be used to accurately predict our future health. Is this information that we want to share without restriction?
Clinicians are already using implantable technologies to monitor heart rhythms and predict the risk of cardiac arrest and/or stroke. Genetic  and blood testing for cancers is commonplace. All of these present ethical challenges which clinicians deal with on a daily basis. As the amount of personal health data being captured and shared rises exponentially, the ethical challenges can only increase. One of the key questions will be: who owns our personal health data (see Maneesh Juneja's excellent blog)? To suggest that there will be no ethical nightmare seems shortsighted. 
Vinod Achan is a Consultant Cardiologist with an interest in Digital Health, Wearable Tech, and the ethical implications of Big Data. The photograph of me speaking at the debate was taken by Kate Matlock.