I’ve got you on my skin

The next revolution is taking place on your wrist: mini-computers – worn on the body and providing everyday support – have blurred the divide between human beings and software. But is the collected data safe?

Text Felix Enzian

Hollywood star Gwyneth Paltrow wears one, as does billionaire and business magnate Richard Branson—and even US President Barack Obama has been seen with one while golfing. At some point during the past two years, so-called self-trackers began appearing on more people’s wrists: unremarkable plastic bands with high tech hidden beneath the sometimes garishly colored surface. Around the clock, sensors record the wearer’s health-related data. Simple models limit this data to physical activities, sleeping patterns and/or calorie consumption; more sophisticated trackers can additionally measure the consumption of alcohol and nicotine, record the pulse rate and also monitor cardiac function, blood pressure and blood glucose levels. And even though there are plenty of people around the world today who have reservations about this detailed tracking, it represents the start of a revolutionary development.

For this reason, market researchers unsurprisingly expect the technology to be triumphant—with 122 million devices sold worldwide in 2016 and double- to triple-digit growth ranges over the next three years. The digital health sector, meaning applications for preventative health care and medicine, is considered the most important future market. Turnover is expected to be 7 billion euros worldwide in 2020. In 2015 it was just 3 billion.


Three gadgets that make life easier

TÜV SÜD employees talk about their favorite wearables.


Photo: Bragi

Alex Kong, 43, Technical Manager in Shenzhen

You could probably describe the wireless headphones known as The Dash as “hearables.” These minicomputers in your ears are fitness trackers, with 27 sensors measuring everything from step speed to running distance. Two other sensors integrated into the earbuds can record body temperature, oxygen saturation and pulse. But what’s more is that making phone calls is also possible. A three-axis sensor allows calls to be picked up with a nod of the head, or rejected with a shake. It may look a bit funny, but it’s very practical.

No more separation

Humans are fumbling their way toward becoming cyberkinetic organisms, or Cyborgs —slowly but surely. Initially this just means that we will be more connected to technology and able to optimize ourselves with its help. Taking a philosophical view of things, the separation between humans and software is being dissolved bit by bit: data leave our computer screens and smartphones and start to permeate the objects of our everyday lives. The constant physical accessibility of technology is being complemented with temporal availability: what we do and how we function is being analyzed and fed back in real time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, everywhere in the world. Humans are becoming more networked—and more self-optimized, thanks to the appropriate software.

Monitoring in real time is actually just an intermediate step in this development. Researchers have been working on combining continual electronic surveillance with models of virtual medical supervision via software, doctors and caregivers. Innovative wearables would then be able to recognize illnesses in early stages, take countermeasures against nutritional deficiencies or dispense medications. This sort of exchange of data makes sense, especially for chronic illnesses such as diabetes: instead of keeping laborious track of insulin and blood sugar levels, it would be much easier to simply transfer the readings directly, via networked devices. Consulting firms such as Soreon Research, a Swiss market research company with a focus on software and health, are accordingly euphoric about these developments: by 2020, 1.3 million lives could be saved worldwide through the direct or indirect use of wearables. Moreover, the devices could feed high-performance databases that could then be used for the targeted advancement of therapies and medications—a treasure trove of data for the good of future generations.



Photo: hexoskin

Zachary Lee Ee San, 41, Assistant Vice President Sales in Singapore

For runners like myself, for whom armbands and chest straps are more of an annoyance, this t-shirt is a great alternative. The chest strap is already built in! And the sensors measure a lot more data than wrist-worn fitness trackers: heart rate, breathing rate, breath volume and steps per minute are recorded and individually analyzed. It also includes the resting pulse rate, evaluation of the time needed for recovery and the correct training zones with respect to heartbeat. Actually, there’s so much data you have to be careful not to get distracted from your exercising!

Raising the alarm

This is exactly the sort of thing that worries many people and that attracts privacy activists. What could be more intimate than data about your own body? The data protection commissioners of the German federal government and German federal states warned in spring 2016 that numerous wearables “share the recorded data with other people or entities without the concerned parties knowing about it or having made a conscious decision about it.” What is more, inadequate technology could lead to health-related information being unintentionally disclosed.

Federal Data Protection Commissioner Andrea Voßhoff has specifically warned that indeed wearables offer additional benefits to the individual medically, but they carry considerable risk. This results in a mass of data being stored that, when combined with other data, allows for a comprehensive profile of the person to be put together. The use of certain health-related data could thus be subject to limitations, based on new basic data protection regulations from the European Union.

“People are worried about losing their data,” says Asli Solmaz-Kaiser, Head of Electrics and Electronics International at TÜV SÜD. “That’s understandable and an inhibiting factor for the wider use of wearables. We need clear, comprehensible standards to guarantee data security and to increase people’s confidence.” TÜV SÜD certifies wearables with special testing programs for the devices’ measuring precision, suitability for use and security—in order to increase people’s confidence in this new technology over the long term. “Some wearables still exhibit significant defects in functionality and pose both security and health risks,” Solmaz-Kaiser warns. “Not all of them are technically sophisticated.



Asli Solmaz-Kaiser, Head of Electrics and Electronics International at TÜV SÜD
"We need clear, comprehensible standards to guarantee data security and to increase people’s confidence."

The danger of manipulation

Some scientific studies have shown that the minicomputers and their software could easily be manipulated by hackers in many cases. Solmaz-Kaiser: “Beyond this, wearables don’t accomplish what the users expect of them. One example: the self-tracker from some manufacturers doesn’t measure the heart rate as precisely as would be necessary for medical purposes.”

To change this, TÜV SÜD is fully cooperating with developers and is monitoring the entire product cycle as an expert: both for device development as well as for the technical testing phase before market entry, in certification as well as monitoring. If the wearable fulfills the security and safety standards, the manufacturer can have this confirmed with an international certification.

As a next step, wearables will be changing their outward appearance. At the moment people wear the devices on their bodies as a wristband, necklace or pair of glasses. There are already first applications for smart clothing. Smart tattoos —yes, tattoos with additional functions—might just be the next development. This special form of wearables would be directly incorporated into the body, which makes the topic of security and safety even more important. The era of linking people and software—it’s just getting started.



Photo: livall

Kirtika Perti, 35, Global Business Development Specialist in Munich

Bicycling is a lot of fun and great for your health, but it can also be a bit dangerous—especially in big cities. Naturally I use a helmet. And they’re getting smarter all the time, like this bicycle helmet, which includes a built-in microphone, Bluetooth speaker, heart rate monitor and LED lights. But what’s special is the three-axis gyro, which can make a call for help when it senses a fall—which fortunately has never happened to me. If there’s an accident, it automatically sends an emergency message to a contact person.