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Google To Buy Fitbit For $2.1 Billion, What About Privacy Concerns?

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Fitbit is getting Googled, in more ways than one.

That’s because there was a Fitbit of news on Friday. Google, a company that you may have heard of, will be acquiring Fitbit, Inc., which has been a pioneer in the wearable-technology and fitness tracker market. According to a Fitbit press release, the deal will go down for $7.35 per Fitbit share, which amounts to about $2.1 billion.

This will certainly help Google get a leg up, or an arm up, or wherever-you-happen-to-wear-your-wearable up, on the rest of the wearable technology market. Google, which is owned by Alphabet, certainly won’t be the only player in the market and would have to catch up to Apple, Samsung, and others in many ways. But it is kind of nice when you can just buy a leading fitness tracker company to do so.

In a blog post, Rick Osterloh, Senior Vice President of Devices and Services for Google, described the impending acquisition as “an opportunity to invest even more in Wear OS as well as introduce Made by Google wearable devices into the market.” He indicated that “By working closely with Fitbit’s team of experts, and bringing together the best AI, software and hardware, we can help spur innovation in wearables and build products to benefit even more people around the world.” Indeed, with the deal, Alphabet-owned Google will be acquiring Fitbit’s product line that includes activity trackers such as the Fitbit Charge 3™, Fitbit Inspire HR™, Fitbit Inspire™ and Fitbit Ace 2™, smartwatches such as the Fitbit Ionic™ and Fitbit Versa™, wireless headphones such as the Fitbit Flyer™, and smart scales such as the Fitbit Aria.

Ah, but that’s not all that they’ll be getting. There’s also going to be lots and lots and lots of, drum roll please, data.

In a statement for the press release, James Park, co-founder and CEO of Fitbit, said, “We have built a trusted brand that supports more than 28 million active users around the globe who rely on our products to live a healthier, more active life.”

That’s 28 million users continuing to generate lots and lots of data as they sleep, sit, move, poop, and do who knows what else while wearing their Fitbit devices. Twitterer @lutherlowe outlined some of these data elements here:

A number of other members of the Twittersphere expressed privacy concerns about the deal and felt that it was more about getting the data than the hardware such as @GerberKawasaki:

And @rockdem0n:

And @ireneista , who claimed to have been a Google insider:

As @journeydan pointed out, Osterloh’s blog did sort of address some of the privacy concerns:

And so did Fitbit and the Fitbit press release:

But not everyone seemed so “reassured”:

In fact, here’s what @neilcybart felt about these “reassurances”:

Fitbit could grow its customer base in part through consumer trust that its data was not being used and sold for advertising and other purposes:

But that was when Fitbit was a smaller company, at least much smaller than Google, which applies to many companies. It will be interesting to see how this news affects the purchases and uses of Fitbit devices:

There was talk of this as being a “privacy apocalypse”:

And that one company would have too much control over everyone’s personal and health data:

Certainly acquiring Fitbit will give Google a whole new data source. A lot of the data will be messy, so-called Big Data in that it will be volumes and volumes of data, not all of which will be accurate or provide value. But there’s no denying that this will be more personal data and information on people’s health.

So what are the concerns about having such personal and health data all in one place? One is further targeting by advertisers. If you thought that gym ads appearing on your computer screen after you have searched for “I have got the runs” was creepy, what does the future have in store for you? Here’s one possibility:

Waiting for the day that your device will say, “you’ve been on the toilet for a really long time, and your heart rate seems to increase periodically. Here are a bunch of stool softeners that you can buy.”

Another is such data being offered to employers, insurance companies, financial firms, and others who may be interested in knowing people’s health and disease status. Could a company be less inclined to hire, insure, offer credit to, or invest in you if you have certain “pre-existing conditions” or are deemed by an algorithm as a “health risk”? How may your promotions and career advancement be affected? What products, services, and discounts will you have or not have access to given your health status? Could a hotel in the future say, “oh, we’d love to give you a room for that price but it looks like you haven’t gotten that much sleep over the past few days, so we’re going to charge you a premium since we know that you need it.”

As you can see, health data can be powerful, more powerful than knowing how many times you listened to a Justin Bieber song. Because your health can determine what you can and can’t do. It can determine your vulnerabilities, your limitations, or at least what others view as your vulnerabilities and limitations.

Moreover, even if a person’s health is not a limitation or a vulnerability, it can be turned that way. Stigma and discrimination come with many mental and physical health issues. People can even use perceptions of mental and physical health issues against each other. Heck, I’ve seen people make up mental health issues just to besmirch someone else. If you haven’t realized, workplace politics can be quite dirty.

Additionally, even if there isn’t intentional use or selling of such data, the risk of hacking or accidental data leakages and security lapses are always issues. One can talk about taking data security seriously but it will be important to know what specific security measures are in place and how will they be enforced. Health researchers and data scientists like myself regularly deal with such data issues. Whenever we do a study or work with health data, we have to go through a range of safeguards to ensure that sensitive data is safe and that individuals cannot be identified.

Then, there’s the potential problem of data being used improperly even if the intentions are good. Data in itself has no value. It’s use determines its value. Therefore, the methodology and analytical approaches applied do matter. Three different researchers can take the same data set and potentially generate different insights depending on the methods used. If you are wondering how this could happen, just look at opinions about coffee over the past decade. Is coffee good or bad for you? It can depend on how you slice the data (and the bagel that goes with it).

All in all, Google’s acquisition is big data news in more ways than one. Certainly, Google and whomever they share the data with will get more Big Data. But the acquisition is also big, big, big as far as data and data science are concerned. Health data can be powerful in many different ways, and how it is used will make a big difference. Used positively, it can help identify new ways of preventing and treating health problems and helping people live happier and more productive lives. Used in nefarious or inappropriate ways, it can create a lot more problems, bigger problems than just offering you uninvited recipes for chocolate pie.



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Tech News

Minister confirms plans for digital service tax on big tech companies

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Thursday 23-01-2020 11:52

Britain wants a trade deal with the United States but will impose a digital service tax on the revenue of big tech companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon, business minister Andrea Leadsom said today, Reuters reports.

“The United States and the United Kingdom are committed to entering into a trade deal with each other and we have a very strong relationship that goes back centuries so some of the disagreements that we might have over particular issues don’t in any way damage the excellent and strong and deep relationship between the US and the UK,” Leadsom told Talk Radio.

“There are always tough negotiations and tough talk but I think where the tech tax is concerned it’s absolutely vital that these huge multinationals who are making incredible amounts of income and profit should be taxed and what we want to do is to work internationally with the rest of the world to cover with a proper regime that ensures that they’re paying their fair share.”
Under the British plan, tech companies that generate at least £500m ($657m) a year in global revenue will pay a levy of 2 per cent of the money they make from UK users from April 2020.

At Davos yesterday, after the British chancellor, Sajid David, had confirmed plans for the tax, US treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin threatened a retaliatory tax, saying: “If people want tto arbitrarily put taxes on our digital companies, we will consider arbitrarily putting taxes on car companies.”

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