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Why Google’s Plan for Fitbit Should Worry You

Late last year, Google announced its intention to purchase Fitbit for a whopping $2.1 billion. A pretty hefty price tag for a personal fitness tracking company that currently garners less than 5% market share. What gives? Does Google have a vested interest in creating a new revenue stream via a wristwatch that lets Betty in Boise know whether she’s nailing her 10,000 steps a day? Is the smartwatch market so alluring that one of the largest companies in the history of the world just has to grab its piece of the pie? Or is the massive acquisition about something else entirely? Well, yeah. Anyone who has had the bone-chilling privilege of watching The Social Dilemma on Netflix (which, by the way, I highly recommend) knows that just about everything big tech does boils down to one ultimate goal, which is to amass more data from you, your kids, their teachers, the mailman... and Betty. Tech companies have created ways to monetize nearly every literal and figurative step you take that can be electronically tracked. They already know what videos you watch, which online stores you frequent, which photographs you like (or love!) on social media and which political ads attract you (or make you irate). Essentially, they know what triggers you to act, then they leverage this data to create algorithms that both predict your actions and enhance your opportunities for engagement with advertisers. Which of course is a nice way of saying that they are manipulating you into buying stuff so they can increase their advertising revenue. It might not seem like that big of a deal, after all, we have become wise consumers and are use to salesmen constantly pitching their wares. If you can look past the manipulation by big data (Google, Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, to name a few) and just don’t really care about your personal preferences being exploited, you might just take it more personally when it starts to profoundly affect your health, your life and your wallet.

Back to the Fitbit Thing Fitbit, like other smartwatches, currently has the ability to track metrics like steps taken, miles run and hours biked. All pretty useful measures for people working on tracking and improving their health. The gizmo and its app also monitor things like resting heart rate, optimum heart rate and sleep duration. Again, pretty cool and useful. So, what is the concern?

Enter Project Nightingale Around the same time Google was making its bid for Fitbit, the tech giant was also striking up a deal with Ascension – a large healthcare system that operates across 20 states – to manage their critical data. And by critical data, I am referring to personal medical records, test results, hospitalization histories. You know, stuff like that. This partnership is referred to as Project Nightingale. Big tech is positioning their interest in healthcare as a noble one, claiming they are simply addressing the need for centralization and consistency in an often-fragmented system. Google pretty much swears they are not doing anything nefarious with the health data they are now privy to, but their aggressive foray into healthcare has a lot of people worried. And make no mistake, the other big data companies will follow suit, if they haven’t already. In a recent story in Time Magazine, reporter Patrick Lucas Austin wrote “Google’s rivals, most notably Apple, have embraced healthcare as the next big battleground in the tech world, attracted by the promises of big profits for those who can help simplify a byzantine system.” NPR produced a great piece on Project Nightingale that you can read or listen to here.

Now the Wearable Device Strategy Makes Sense So here is Google jumping into the healthcare data ring and simultaneously acquiring a health and fitness tracking device company. Let that sink in. Not only will the tech giant have the data on what Betty “hearts” on social media, they will also have the data related to her actual heart (and other health-related data points). We are talking very personal information like heart rate, blood pressure, sleep patterns, activity patterns, workout intensity, what Betty is eating and what she weighs. Stuff that Betty likely doesn’t even share with her best friend. And if you are wearing a Fitbit, they will be tracking your health data too. Next, Google (and similarly situated big data companies) can surgically target messages to you and Betty based on the data from your wearable devices. Perhaps more importantly, they will then share this data with advertisers who will leverage it to better target messaging uniquely tailored to you. Here is essentially how it works. You put on your Fitbit. You track your steps, enter your food intake and generally use the device for its intended purposes. And because all the tracking synchs to an online app, Google accesses that data and leverages it to better allow advertisers to target you. Let’s say Betty’s Fitbit records her resting heart rate as skewing moderately high. Who might benefit from knowing this information, other than Betty herself and maybe her doctor? Perhaps a pharmaceutical company who manufactures beta-blocker medication? Or maybe an HMO who is deciding whether to insure Betty? Heck, maybe even an aspirin brand hoping Betty might want to thin her blood. Suddenly Betty is barraged by advertisers who are somehow privy to some very private matters. While viewing photos of her friend’s baby on Instagram, Betty scrolls down to an ad asking if she is interested in learning more about statins. When Betty clicks on a news video, a weight loss commercial plays and touts the program’s positive affects on heart health. More and more, Betty notices she is somehow surrounded by advertisers who are eagerly waiting in the wings, ready to help. But she wonders how they know so much about her. Then she looks down at her Fitbit and sees she is down on her steps for the day. Now multiply Betty’s experience by, I don’t know, billions. Then wrap your mind around the crazy advertising dollars involved. And there you have the very real reason that great-big Google is so interested in that little-tiny watch wrapped around your wrist.


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