Spinning Wildly on the Hampster Wheel of the Surveillance Economy
You’re heading to the gym for a workout when you decide to surprise your coworkers with a treat. You search for the nearest bagel shop on your Google Maps app. The app directs you to their closest advertiser, Donut Feel Good?, which is actually a donut shop just short of the bagel place. Your heart pounds from the joy of anticipation — your team will LOVE you (and the sugar rush).
Just as you’re leaving the donut place, your phone alerts you to a coupon at your favorite coffee shop. “Why not?” you think, as Google nudges your behavior just a bit more. As you bite into your first donut and bask in coworker glory, Google is busy sharing your lack of exercise and poor eating habits with your health insurance company, which also has an app on your phone.
Welcome to the surveillance economy, where the product is your data.
Acquiring Fitbit Moves Google Out of Your Pocket and Into Your Body
Thanks to Google’s purchase of Fitbit, Google doesn’t just know your location, your destination and your purchases, it now knows your resting heart rate and increased beats per minute as you anticipate that first donut bite. Google is at the forefront of the surveillance economy — making money by harvesting the digital exhaust we all emit just living our lives.
Google already has reams of data on our internet searches (Google.com), location data (maps and Android phones), emails and contacts (Gmail), home conversations and digital assistant searches (Google Home), video habits (YouTube), smarthome video footage and thermostat settings (Nest) and document contents (Docs, Sheets, etc.). The sheer volume of our digital exhaust that they’re coalescing, analyzing and selling is phenomenal.
Combine that psychographic and behavioral data with the health data of 28 million Fitbit users, and Google can probably predict when you’ll need to use the toilet.
Fitbit tracks what users eat, how much they weigh and exercise, the duration and quality of their sleep and their heart rate. With advanced devices, women can log menstrual cycles. Fitbit scales keep track of body mass index and what percentage of a user’s weight is fat. And the app (no device required) tracks all of that, plus blood sugar.
It’s not a stretch of the imagination to think Fitbit and other health-tracking devices also know your sexual activity and heart irregularities by location (e.g., your heart rate goes up when you pass the Tesla dealership, a car you’ve always wanted). Google wants to get its hands on all that information, and if past behavior is any indicator, they want to sell access to it.
As Reuters noted, much of Fitbit’s value “may now lie in its health data.”
Can We Trust How Google Uses Our Health Data?
Regarding the sale, Fitbit said, “Consumer trust is paramount to Fitbit. Strong privacy and security guidelines have been part of Fitbit’s DNA since day one, and this will not change.”
But can we trust that promise? This is a common tactic of data user policy scope creep: Once we stop paying attention and want to start using our Fitbit again, the company will change its policies and start sharing customer data. They’ll notify us in a multipage email that links to a hundred-page policy that we’ll never read. Even if we do take the time to read it, are we going to be able to give up our Fitbit? We’ve seen this tactic play out again and again with Google, Facebook and a host of other companies.
Google put out its own statement, assuring customers the company would never sell personal information and that Fitbit health and wellness data would not be used in its advertising. The statement said Fitbit customers had the power to review, move or delete their data, but California is the only U.S. state that can require the company to do so by law — under the California Consumer Protection Act, set to go into effect next year.
Tellingly, Google stopped short of saying the data won’t be used for purposes other than advertising. Nor did they say they won’t categorize you into a genericized buyer’s profile (Overweight, Underfit & Obsessed with Donuts) that can be sold to their partners.
And advertisements are just the tip of the iceberg. Google can use the data for research and to develop health care products, which means it will have an enormous influence on the types of products that are developed, including pharmaceuticals. If that isn’t troubling to you, remember that Google (and big pharma) are in business to make money, not serve the public good.
Google Has Demonstrated Repeatedly That It Can’t Be Trusted with Our Data
Just this week, we learned that Google has been quietly working with St. Louis-based Ascension, the second-largest health system in the U.S., collecting and aggregating the detailed health information of millions of Americans in 21 states.
Code-named Project Nightingale, the secret collaboration began last year and, as the Wall Street Journal reported, “The data involved in the initiative encompasses lab results, doctor diagnoses and hospitalization records, among other categories, and amounts to a complete health history, including patient names and dates of birth.”
The Journal also reported that neither the doctors nor patients involved have been notified, and at least 150 Google employees have access to the personal health data of tens of millions of patients. Remarkably, this is all legal under a 1996 law that allows hospitals to share data with business partners without patients’ consent. Google is reportedly using the data to develop software (that uses AI and machine learning) “that zeroes in on individual patients to suggest changes to their care.” It was originally reported that the arrangement is all legal under a 1996 law that allows hospitals to share data with business partners without patients’ consent.
However, the day after the story broke, a federal inquiry was launched into Project Nightingale. The Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Health and Human Services is looking into whether HIPAA protections were fully implemented in accordance with the 1996 law.
Your Health Insurance Could Be at Stake
Likewise, Fitbit has been selling devices to employees through their corporate wellness programs for years and has teamed up with health insurers, including United Healthcare, Humana and Blue Cross Blue Shield.
Even if individual data from Fitbit users isn’t shared, Google can use it to deduce all sorts of health trends. It’s also possible that “anonymous” information can be re-identified, meaning data can be matched with individual users. This sets up a scenario where we can be denied health care coverage or charged higher premiums based on data gathered on our eating or exercise habits.
Now couple that with data on what foods we buy, where we go on vacation and our most recent Google searches, and companies will not only be able to track our behavior, they’ll be able to predict it. This kind of digital profile makes a credit report look quaint by comparison.
Get Off the Hamster Wheel
For the time being, you control many of the inputs that fuel the surveillance economy. You can choose to take off your Fitbit. You can change the default privacy settings on your phone. You can delete apps that track your fitness and health, buy scales that don’t connect to the internet and opt-out of information sharing for the apps and devices you must use. Your greatest tool in the fight for privacy is your intentional use of technology.
In other words, you do have a measure of control over your data. Donut Feel Good?
About Cybersecurity Keynote Speaker John Sileo
John Sileo is the founder and CEO of The Sileo Group, a privacy and cybersecurity think tank, in Lakewood, Colorado, and an award-winning author, keynote speaker, and expert on technology, cybersecurity and tech/life balance.