Companies are rapidly deploying wearables in the fight against Covid-19 with studies on early detection, proximity scanning, and contact tracing activities around the world. But the use of wearables collecting health data raises huge privacy concerns.

Wearables such as fitness trackers and smartwatches are small, non-invasive and hugely popular, with a ready-made, large installed base of customers, making them ideal to be used to track and isolate Covid-19 cases, enforce social distancing and prevent community spread.

Key use cases for wearables define why a consumer might buy a wearable product. Despite the hype on health and fitness as a use case, we are still early in the technology adoption curve with technical and regulatory challenges.

Covid-19 has the potential to speed up adoption of wearables

Most wearables already track the attributes that are considered essential for Covid-19 detection: body temperature, heart and pulse rate, and they also monitor movement patterns.

In a race to understand the virus better and mitigate its effects, medical groups and universities, in collaboration with technology companies, are in the midst of several Covid-19 studies using wearables.

West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute has created an AI platform to use smart rings for early detection of the virus three days prior to onset with 90% accuracy. USA’s National Basketball Association is using Oura’s unobtrusive smart ring for its summer season of play to track body temperature, blood-volume pulse, movement and sleep of NBA players.

Fitbit has launched an in-app study of its Covid-19 positive consumers to build an accurate profile of the virus cases which will aid in early detection and help people self-isolate earlier. Research is underway at Stanford University about Apple Watch’s ability to detect early signs of Covid-19.

If the Covid-19 studies with trackers and smartwatches are successful in detecting the virus early enough to stop its spread, the pandemic will create not only a new use case for wearables qualifying them as essential products, but will also open up an additional source of revenue for both carriers and OEMs (with cellular connectivity).

Privacy will be an issue

Fast launch is key amidst this pandemic, and detection and tracking services are being launched rapidly across regions. But screening and tracking of personal health information, whether opt-in or mandatory, presents a hosts of privacy challenges: who will collect the data? Who shares it and with whom? And how will it be used? Personal and health information also face the danger of data breaches and cyberattacks. Consumers already fatigued with lockdowns and mask wearing procedures will not take kindly to wearable trackers or the notion of micro-surveillance by employers and/or governments. There are enormous technical and regulatory challenges associated with a progression toward m-health, and with continuous advancements in 5G network coverage and AI functioning, data privacy will remain an ongoing concern even as the pandemic subsides.

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