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The Apple Watch's Hidden Advantage: Privacy

By Chris Neiger – Feb 12, 2016 at 11:11AM

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A new study shows Apple's smartwatch is more secure than other leading wearables.

Image source: Apple.

Apple's (AAPL -0.07%) new Watch is already starting to make a splash in the wearable tech market. The company shipped more smartwatches than any other tech maker in 2015, and Apple now trails just behind Fitbit (FIT) for the most global wearable tech devices shipped last year, according to Canalys. 

Apple's high-end wearable device offers more features than other devices (like the ability to run third-party apps), but a recent study shows that Apple is also the most secure wearable device on the market. 

The new report by Open Effect and the University of Toronto shows that Apple was the only device out of eight wearables that properly secures a device's Bluetooth connection. The study looked at the Apple Watch, Fitbit's Charge HR, Intel's Basis Peak smartwatch, the Garmin (GRMN -0.12%) Vivosmart, Withings Pulse 02, Xiaomoi's Mi Band, Jawbone Up 2, and Mio Fuse. 

All of the above devices use Bluetooth Low Energy to broadcast a signal so that smartphones can find them and pair with them. But the researchers found that only the Apple Watch consistently sent out a random MAC address (each Internet-enabled device has a unique MAC address) to hide its identity. The wearable devices can more easily be tracked by third parties (i.e., hackers or creepers) without a randomized MAC address.

"Seven out of eight fitness tracking devices emit persistent unique identifiers (Bluetooth Media Access Control address) that can expose their wearers to long-term tracking of their location when the device is not paired, and connected to, a mobile device," the report said. 

And not only were the other seven devices open to malicious tracking, but the researchers found it easy to add (and sometimes delete) data to the Withings and Garmin devices as well. That means the researchers could say that someone walked somewhere at a certain time, when they actually did not. This is partially troubling because wearable data has been used in court cases to show when and where a person has been, according to the report. Garmin also didn't encrypt any of the fitness data being sent from its Connect app, which left users even more vulnerable to privacy and security problems than the other devices. 

Consumers care about privacy
There's always a certain amount of vulnerability any Internet-connected device has, but it's more problematic for devices that people wear all the time. 

About 86% of consumers are already concerned that wearable technology makes them vulnerable to security breaches, and 82% are worried that the devices could be used to invade their privacy, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Image source: Fitbit.

Fitbit is trying to make its devices more secure, but it's not as easy at it sounds. The company told the researchers that it has a problem including the specific Bluetooth privacy feature Apple uses (called LE Privacy) because of the fragmented Android ecosystem. Some Android devices don't support it, so the company couldn't include it with its Charge HR. But Fitbit said it would continue to look into adding the feature in new devices.

Now what
The fact that the Apple Watch is more secure than other leading wearable devices probably won't cause more people to buy it. But it certainly gives privacy-conscious users another reason to opt for the Apple Watch over other devices. And that's bad news for the rest of the wearable tech market. Apple is already expected to hold the majority of the smartwatch market through 2020, according to Tractica. And if the Apple Watch continues to be the most secure wearable device on the market, then that's just another feature Apple can tout over the competition. 

Chris Neiger has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple. The Motley Fool recommends Intel. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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