Smart skin


Everything in the future will be pretty smart. (Hopefully, we will still be too…) The latest trend, after smart watches, smart glasses, smart homes and smart cars, is smart tattoos. So far, they are designed to be a temporary solution.

The big difference to all the other smart things that you step into or put onto your wrist and head, is that you wear smart tattoos directly on your skin without taking them off every once in a while. These tattoos can be used in health care, as bioelectronics innovator Todd Coleman explains, “to have the benefits of high fidelity monitoring that we get with our trusted partners at the hospital while someone is at home living their daily life.”

How does the skin become smart?

Coleman’s smart tattoos are constructed of a flexible electronic patch that can interface with the human body. “They can measure the types of information that we want.”, he says. Bodily movements, temperature, electrical rhythms of the body and much more. Smart tattoos are even capable of wireless transmission. They have integrated circuits which help to amplify, digitize and encode signals for wireless transmissions into the cloud.

Good news for health care, bad news for privacy

“We have to be mindful of questions of privacy.”, Coleman says. It doesn’t take a data privacy expert to recognize that uploading a data stream of sensitive health data into the cloud, where it can easily be hacked, may not be the best idea. So, Coleman and his team decided not to have their algorithms interpret the data in the cloud, but to run those algorithms on the integrated circuits in the tattoos. This approach doesn’t eliminate the possibility to get hacked, but it at least eliminates the probability to become a target.

Of course, smart tattoos could reduce health care and insurance costs. Of course, home is a far cozier environment for people in need of medical care than sterile hospital rooms. But we have to keep in mind, that smart devices like this collect sensitive health data that – up until now – has never left the hospital. Now it gets collected and processed (and maybe even stored?) somewhere where it suddenly might be accessible to others. Not only hackers or insurance companies could be interested in this data, but the government or other corporations as well. Data that is put out there is bound to be found by someone.

Find out all about smart tattoos in our Talk of the Week here:

Cover image by Unsplash

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About Verena Ehrnberger

Verena works as a data privacy legal expert and studies philosophy at the University of Vienna. Always juggling multiple projects, she is seriously addicted to coffee.

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