eTextiles + Privacy: References + Precedents

Posted on Dec 18, 2018 in Circuits, In process

Last year, I began to compile a body of research around the impact of an emerging eTextile market on data privacy for a project proposal as part of a fellowship application. While I did not get the fellowship, I am sharing the work here in hopes that it will support other researchers, artists, and educators in their endeavors. A recent article describing innovations in yarn-embedded solar cells prompted me to finally post this. Power is a substantial stumbling block to the promise of ubiquitous computing in garments and other soft interfaces. As progress is made in solving these challenges, questions of data privacy will become more important to address. This has not been updated since early 2018, but it is a good starting point to build on.

Here is part of the executive summary for further context:

You are in contact with textiles for 90% of your life. Within ten years, it’s likely your clothing will be gathering more intimate data about you than your phone or computer or smart speaker. Your favorite sweater will record and transmit data about your every move, conversation, breath, and potentially every thought you have. Embedded sensors in our phones will be put to shame by the sensors that will be literally woven into the fabrics we put on our body each day.

The data collected from our bodies and the textiles we use to express and protect ourselves is political. Misuse of this data could result in new forms of oppression, exposure, and marginalization along already entrenched class, gender, ethnic, and racial lines. Such a “data gaze” has great potential to further amplify these lines. Transparency and openness conversely have the capacity to resist these lines by conferring power back to individuals, offering them choice and agency over their data.

This is a critical moment. Forecasters predict the market for eTextiles will reach $5 billion in the next decade across industries including medical, military, sports, and consumer. However, interoperability issues between textile and electronics manufacturers have slowed down the impending eTextile boom. This gives advocates precious time to galvanize the public to demand increased privacy regulations and better security protocols.

As a practitioner, artist, researcher, and educator of eTextiles over the last seven years, I am deeply concerned about the conversations we as a larger society are not having. The gravity of this issue cannot be underestimated: normalizing the concession of personal data through our clothing will create a new type of surveillance that we have yet to imagine.

This project will create tools and objects to instigate the discussions we need to have now.

The google doc is here and embedded below. It is enabled for comments if you would like to contribute.