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Attorneys

Wearable Technology Raises Concerns Regarding IP, Data Privacy and Data Security

August 4 2016

By Jo Dale Carothers

When fashion fuses with high tech, we see our friends show up with trendy wearables, such as smart watches, fitness bands, and even high-tech, designer purses.  But, trendiness aside, wearables raise numerous questions for designers, manufacturers and consumers relating to intellectual property, data privacy and data security.  For example, how does a company protect the technology for its latest smart watch?  Should they rely on patents, trademarks, copyrights or something else?  Who owns the rights to a designer tote with an embedded charging station—the fashion designer or the circuit designer?  Is your employer allowed to collect location and health data via sensor-infused fabric in your work uniform to improve productivity and wellness?  What happens when your fitness band is hacked, revealing personal health data that makes its way to your insurance company?  Can they raise your rates upon learning you have high blood pressure and have stopped working out?

The questions are unending and some answers are still unclear because laws, courts and contracts have not necessarily caught up with advances in this technology.  Further, the fashion and high tech industries have traditionally approached IP protection differently due to the different nature of their products.  Meanwhile, we have seen high-tech industry leaders (e.g., Apple, Fitbit, and Google’s parent, Alphabet), as well as non-practicing entities, actively amassing patents relating to wearables.  This indicates that licensing and litigation will soon escalate as new wearable products arrive in the marketplace.  We have already seen patent litigation related to products such as Ralph Lauren’s Ricky bag, which has an illuminable interior and charger for electronic devices, and Adidas and Textronic’s shirt with special fibers for sensing vital signs and communicating them to a smartphone.  But merely taking off-the-shelf electronics and making them “wearable,” may not be patentable.  Therefore, companies should consider combining patents on novel innovations that make the electronics wearable with other forms of IP protection for appearance, branding and expression to effectively protect their wearable technology.

Despite its recently soaring growth, wearable technology is not new.  For example, the first electronic hearing aid was constructed well over a hundred years ago.  By the 1980s, we saw digital watches with built-in calculators.  But constraints on size, power, weight, etc., limited the development and adoption of early wearable products.  Now, advances in technology have broadened current applications to include fitness, communication, medical monitoring and more.  In addition, tech companies have learned that widespread adoption of wearables requires that these high-tech accessories fit with current fashion trends.  No one wants to wear something that is clunky and doesn’t match their fashion sense or personality, right?  As a result, tech companies have teamed up with designer brands and hired experts from the fashion industry to co-develop and market wearables.

Today, wearables offer convenience and the potential to monitor and/or increase wellness, safety, productivity, sleep, etc.  But the wearer is often not the only one with access to the data collected, which raises privacy concerns and issues regarding data security.  For example, companies often make a wearer sign up for an account or load an app on a phone to use the wearable.  Then these companies collect, process, and perhaps back up the data along with the wearer’s account information.  These companies could share this information with advertisers who then target the wearer with ads for specific products based on current or past location, health statistics, exercise habits, etc.  We see this user-specific advertising on our phones and computers every day.  For example, since I recently searched for information on a particular car, ads for that car and similar cars are showing up when I use Facebook, browsers and other apps.  This example is rather benign, albeit a little annoying given that I already purchased the car I wanted.

But not all examples are so benign.  Now advertisers and others not only have information on your recent Google searches, but may also be able to gain real-time statistics and other information about your stress level, heart rate, blood pressure, location, etc.  The risks associated with dissemination of your health, location, and financial data are much higher than the mere sharing of information about a car you are interested in purchasing.  These risks also raise additional liability concerns for companies if the data is stolen or misused.  Therefore, it is crucial that companies safeguard against data breaches and understand the privacy rights of their employees and customers.  Some companies are even purchasing cyber insurance as protection against data breaches.  But merely having an insurance policy is not enough.  If your company doesn’t have the proper safeguards in place, such as updated security patches and practices, then the insurance company may not have to pay.

To advise clients in this area, attorneys must be knowledgeable about the technology and the integration of technology with fashion, as well as the legal issues surrounding IP, data privacy and data security.  For a particular client and product, it is critical to develop an integrated approach that effectively provides protection via a combination of utility and design patents, trade secrets, copyrights, trademarks and where appropriate, the lesser-used trade dress protection.  The goal is to use the appropriate IP mechanisms to protect all facets of wearable technology, including the electronics, software, functionality, packaging, marketing materials, appearance and the branding associated with it, while avoiding liability from breaches of data privacy or security.