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On March 12, the World Wide Web turns 25. In 1989, Tim Berners Lee wrote a paper at the European physics lab called CERN, about a way to help linked computers share their sets of data with the public.
Twenty five years later, that idea has let an ever-expanding universe of all kinds of devices share information. But those devices are going far beyond just sets of computers. One modern example is wearable devices, which are delivering data to us and collecting it from us with help from the Web. Wearables are having their moment right now. The Fitbit fitness tracker, Nike’s Fuelband–these wearables use the Web to collect and deliver all the information we need to become fitter, happier, and more productive.
Some attendees at SXSW Interactive have already moved beyond wearables though, and are on to embeddables. What are embeddables? “Nanoscale machinery inside our bodies,” says Andy Goodman, “which can monitor us and modify us.” Goodman spoke about embeddables at SXSW, saying in the near future we could have everything from sensors that tweaked our home brewed coffee to our personal taste, to LEDs in our hair that would display our status updates or even ads.
But there’s a problem with embeddables: they present yet another data risk. Nicole Ozer is manning a quiet booth at the conference in Austin, as the tech policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union. And she’s not just worried about how wearables (and someday embeddables) are collecting our data. She’s worried about how the companies making this technology manage that data. “A lot of companies take the mindset of ‘let’s collect as much data as we can, says Ozer. “Let’s retain it as long as possible. And let’s have as much discression about how we use it.” If companies are keeping the data around, she says the government or another third party could demand it, steal it, or just snatch it up because it’s there.
Ozer says another wrinkle is that users aren’t as aware of data collection without sitting in front of a screen, so wearables and embeddables present an extra challenge about awareness. Out of sight, out of mind. A good example of this is the issue Fitbit users had with the dropdown menu on their sexual activity–which got posted inadvertantly in some google results. Now imagine that bit of tech being actually IN your body. Could an overreaching goverment charge you for eating a donut?
If some of this stuff sounds far out, it may be. It may be a while before a sensor in our mouth makes sure we get the perfect-tasting coffee. Maybe never. But the LED hairdo might not be as far off. Researchers at the University of Washington made a new kind of LED this week. It’s small. How small? Just three atoms thick.
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