Google Acquires Fitbit: A Spy On Your Wrist?

Cam McAdam

Google has finally completed the acquisition of Fitbit for £1.5bn, a deal first announced in November 2019. This deal was finalised after a 4-month investigation by the European Commission, over concerns about the lack of privacy for the Fitbit users’ data. But what does this mean? Could this be another way for the tech giant to know more about us than ever before?

To give context on the seriousness of this situation, first cast your mind back to 2002. In Minneapolis, an angry father complained to a Target manager that his daughter (a high school student) had received coupons in the post of baby clothes, cribs, and nursery furniture, claiming that Target was encouraging his daughter to become pregnant. Target’s manager apologised. But algorithms had detected changes in his daughter’s buying habits that had been made, like buying scent-free lotions, which the algorithm had flagged that she could be pregnant; causing Target to send the coupons.

Later that week the father told the manager that “there’s been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of. She’s due in August. I owe you an apology.” So, Target knew a girl was pregnant before her own father knew—just based on purchases she had made in that week. This shows just how much power big companies have when they can track your purchases.

We are tracked digitally now more than ever before with browser cookies, CCTV surveillance, DNA fingerprinting, debit card tracking, GPS, and phone tracking signals. Yet, in knowledge of all of this, we continue to use all these things because it is convenient, and we don’t care; but should we?

This would lead to Google having a stronger market position in supplying online advertisements in the EU and EEA

One of the European Commission’s main causes of concern with Google acquiring Fitbit was that the data collected from Fitbit could be used to help influence what you buy, by personalised adverts for items on websites, because they understand what you were just searching for. An additional problem the Commission raised was the increased data advantage would Google have, making it harder for rivals to match Google’s online advertisement service. This would lead to Google having a stronger market position in supplying online advertisements in the EU and EEA. The result would be other publishers and advertisers paying higher prices and having fewer choices. Blocking other advertisers to reduce competition has been done by Google before, who received a £1.28bn fine for it in March 2019, making it even harder to trust them with our personal data in the future.

So what? Who cares if a multinational company knows your consumer habits? In some ways it’s ideal: you are suggested products to buy that you like, you don’t have to spend hours on the internet to find items you want, and helps keep your preferences like the language or currency used.

It has been pointed out that the merger could improve the quality of the smartwatches themselves. Google acquiring Fitbit, which accounts for 2.4% of the smartwatch market, could increase competition with rivals Apple and Garmin accounting for 51.4% and 9.4% of the market share in 2020.

It is important to also remember, the merger was approved by the Commission in December 2020, where it was made clear that Google could not use health and location data from Fitbit for advertising. So perhaps there is nothing to worry about?

Aware of the discomfort this has caused, Google have tried to reassure customers by also agreeing that they:

  • would store the data from Fitbit and Google devices separately
  • will “protect Fitbit users’ privacy” and not let your search engine history become public knowledge
  • not use Fitbit data for advertising health products
  • will maintain 3rd party access to the Fitbit platform

The “possibilities are truly limitless”

In a recent blog post, Fitbit CEO James Park said, “we will maintain strong data privacy and security protections, giving you control of your data,” trying to reassure potential customers following the uncertainty in all of this. This was an attempt to make it clearer that Google would not use health data used in Fitbit to promote customer products. He also mentioned that the main features of Fitbit will remain the same, but with reference to Google he said, “possibilities are truly limitless.”

It is clear that Google knows so much about us already that another device that could be used to expose more data wouldn’t change too much. The golden question is whether they keep to their binding commitments made with global regulators. They have a weak track record, having had several fines imposed on them relating to their personalised ad services and other anti-competitive practices.

The bleak reality is that one day we may be in a world controlled by technology giants, and this acquisition may bring us a little bit closer to that reality.

Cam McAdam

Featured image from by Matthew Bird and used with permission.

Embeded tweet from @EU_Competition. No changes made.

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One Comment
  • Sam
    1 February 2021 at 12:59
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    Very interesting read

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