Your smartwatch, as with most internet-enabled devices, is a digital beacon. Most modern smartwatches have location and position-sensing capabilities that raise security and privacy concerns. But should that stop you from using or getting a wrist buddy like a Fitbit, Apple Watch, or Garmin? Not necessarily. You can learn how your smartwatch becomes a privacy or security risk and avoid them.
Why Smartwatches Pose Security Risks
Smartwatches are versatile, but they are also internet-enabled devices, and that means they are far from immune to the privacy and security risks that plague much of modern technology. The main reason many smartwatches have less security than you might expect is that small devices have less space for manufacturers to embed processing power, battery, and security. And with consumer products, something’s got to give.
Why Your Smartwatch Can Be a Security and Privacy Risk
Here are three main ways your smartwatch can be a security and privacy risk.
1. Data Collection
Your smartwatch constantly monitors your body composition (fat, water, muscle mass, and blood oxygen) and activities (temperature, heart rate, and sleep). This data then gets synced to your devices and the company’s servers.
At this point, there are two ways your data can get into the wrong hands. One is if an attacker takes over your phone and all the data contained therein. Managing this risk is within your control to a reasonable extent. The other way your data can get compromised is in the event of a data breach or cyberattack on the smartwatch company. Managing this risk is not within your control, which makes choosing a company that prioritizes privacy an important factor to consider before buying a smartwatch.
Besides the risk of cyberattacks and data breaches, there is also the fact that third-party apps also have access to the sensitive user data the smartwatch collects. Your best defense against this intrusion is to uninstall unnecessary apps. Keep the apps to the barest minimum for functionality.
You may also install privacy-focused apps to replace the ones you removed. For example, Signal stacks up well against WhatsApp.
2. Data Transfer Between Watch and Phone
Wi-Fi and Bluetooth security have improved in recent years. However, these connectivity technologies remain vulnerable to data breaches. There are three main ways Bluetooth is open to attacks: bluejacking, bluebugging, and bluesnarfing. The latter two methods make it possible for hackers to steal data from your device, even without you knowing.
Smartwatches have three connection methods: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or LTE. Most models come equipped with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, while the pricier models have LTE. Bluetooth/Wi-Fi models must sync with an app to transfer data from watch to phone (and company servers). LTE models, however, can connect to the internet directly and sync data in real-time. However, LTE models typically consume more power, and most people prefer to use Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.
It doesn’t matter which model you choose. There is always the ever-present risk that someone with the right tools and motivation can hack your device and steal data.
3. You’re Always Trackable
Your watch can use GPS data to create a route map of your outdoor workout or commute. This makes you constantly trackable because you’re less likely to leave the watch at home, turn it off, or take it off.
Turning off tracking obviously depends on which device you have. You can turn off location services on the Apple Watch, for instance, by navigating to Settings > General > Location Services and toggle this off. The same method applies to smartwatches operating on WearOS.
What You Can Do to Make Your Smartwatch Safer
The security of smartwatches is not perfect, but there are several things you can do to make them safer to use.
Uninstall Unnecessary Third-party Apps
Your WearOS or WearOS smartwatch will come with default apps. These apps do not take a lot of memory space, but they certainly can collect data. Go through the apps on your smartwatch and consider deleting the unnecessary ones.
One good way to find an app to delete is if there’s another app that does its function just as well. Also, check if an existing app handles your needs before installing a new one. Not only will you reduce the number of apps that can access your data, but you’ll also be increasing your watch’s battery life. It’s just one of numerous ways to increase battery life on an Apple Watch, for example.
Turn Off Your Smartwatch When You Don’t Need It
Consider turning off your smartwatch when it’s not in use, especially if you are worried about location monitoring. Your watch will still collect body and activity data, but the chances of tying these activities to your home are lower. The downside is that you won’t enjoy location-based reminders. But at least you’re less worried about location-based targeted ads and any other unnecessary tracking.
The rule of thumb is to turn on your smartwatch when you’re out of your primary residential area. A couple of streets outside your home will do. Also, turn off your smartwatch when you’re a few streets away from your home.
Doing this requires paying attention, and it won’t be perfect in the first few weeks. You’ll get used to it eventually. One way to make it a habit is using a route marker: a sign, a structure, landmark, or event you can associate with turning your watch on or off.
Other Safety Tips
What else can you do toprotect your data while using a smartwatch?
- Stay off public Wi-Fi; connecting can make you vulnerable to hacking.
- Keep your smartwatch OS updated, so hackers can’t exploit security flaws.
- Make your wireless router more secure to keep hackers from snooping.
- Update your phone and computer regularly.
- Delete your smartwatch data on a regular basis.
- Get a fitness tracker that stores user data locally.
You Can Still Use a Smartwatch
When you get a smartwatch, it joins the list of devices you have to monitor to maintain security and protect your privacy. There is no denying just how convenient smartwatches are. But there’s no denying that they can be security risks too.
Ultimately, deciding whether this risk is acceptable is up to you. You don’t have to wear a tin-foil hat or get traditional wristwatches when you can get a smartwatch for about the same price. It is possible to enjoy the benefits of a smartwatch and remain safe.