eTextiles + Privacy Bibliography
privacy, research, futures
In the near future, companies will embed unseen sensors into our clothes and everyday textiles using smart fabrics, threads, and yarns.
These invisible networks will further obfuscate our ability to understand how data is being collected, used, stored, and shared, thereby creating new opportunities for unimagined forms of surveillance. Throughout this field’s history, eTextile artists and researchers have watched the eTextile industry closely. With industry leaders focused on solving manufacturing and chain-supply problems, they often deprioritize enhanced security measures. Now is a critical moment, because those same problems have slowed the impending eTextile boom, giving advocates precious time to galvanize the public. The goal of this research documentation is consolidate related texts and projects that can support future research and critical dialogue.
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.
As a field, eTextiles can be read as a conflicted space. It derives from to two lineages: art community and commercial industry. ETextiles as an art community emerged as a movement by mostly female artists and researchers in the late 1990s. Practitioners drew fluidly from craft, textiles, electronics, and programming to develop new modes of self-expression, pedagogical approaches, and critiques of digital technologies. With no guidebook to fabric sensor construction, the community began sharing and documenting their process, adopting open source licensing models and open hardware platforms to ensure access for other interested practitioners. Transparency, equity, and activism are baked into this practice as are remixing and storytelling.
As commercial industry, eTextiles tends to be closed and proprietary. Products created under this lineage are often marketed as personal displays and improvements to our human abilities, often pursued with little regard for ethical considerations of data privacy.
In 2016 the government funded the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) for $317 million. This public-private partnership connects universities, industry leaders, manufacturers, incubators, and the Department of Defense with the goal of developing new technologies to support R+D, supply chain, manufacturing, and workforce training. Google and Levi jumped into the action as well in 2015 with Project Jacquard, a jean jacket containing embedded capacitive sensors that allow a user to control their phone. To date, none of the aforementioned projects are open source and most of their data policies are murky at best.
Many smaller startups are getting into the industry at a rapid pace as well. Most do not have the bandwidth or resources to implement best data practices, let alone innovate, a terrifying prospect given the current vulnerabilities of numerous IoT startups. Others see the urgency in addressing the problem. Loomia, a NYC-based eTextile start up, is incorporating blockchain technology that will enable users to sell their data back to companies.
Europe is ahead of the U.S. on a response. One recent European initiative, WEAR Sustain, received $200 million from the EU to support artists, technologists, designers, and entrepreneurs to tackle the multitude of ethical challenges posed by eTextiles, highlighting data privacy as a top issue.
Lawyers and policymakers are just starting to address eTextile data privacy, but they will not be able to keep up with the pace of innovation. A 2015 FTC report on the Internet of Things questions whether or not consumers will even be able to understand the types and amounts of data everyday objects collect and transmit. Consumers are still so dazzled by the idea of quantified self that they rarely question or think critically about what is happening to their data. We must bring this conversation to a personal level, by building awareness about the decisions being made without our consent or (intentions) in mind.
It is not difficult to conjure dystopian visions of an eTextile surveillance future. But this is just one path. There are just as many beautiful, beneficial, and poetic possibilities to imagine in an open, transparent world. By weaving in the aesthestics, values, and activist history of eTextiles into interventions that spotlight gaps in the industry, it is my hope that this project will open many more paths.