Google Isn’t Just Buying Fitbit, They’re Tracking Your Donut Habit
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, which directs you to their closest advertiser, Donut Feel Good? Your heart pounds from the joy of anticipation — your team will LOVE you (or at least the sugar rush). Just as you’re leaving Donut Feel Good, your phone dings you with a coupon for coffee across the street. “Why not?” you think, as Google subtly nudges your behavior just a bit more. While you’re in the office, basking in coworker glory, Google is busy sharing your lack of exercise and trans-fat consumption with your health insurance company.
Welcome to the surveillance economy, where your data is the product. I’m John Sileo, privacy and security are my jam (as my kids like to say), and my goal is to make sure you’re being intentional with how you allow technology to track and share your private information, especially as you consider buying a tracker for someone you love.
Put simply, Google is moving out of our pockets and into our bodies. Thanks to their purchase of Fitbit, the health tracking device, Google can combine what they already know about us – the content of our internet searches (Bradley – Graphic representation: Google.com), location data (maps and Android phones), emails, contacts (Gmail), conversations at home, smart speaker searches (Google Home), video watching habits (YouTube), video footage, thermostat settings (Nest) and document contents (Docs, Sheets, etc.) – they will now be able to combine this with our health data. The sheer volume of the digital exhaust they’re collecting, analyzing and selling is phenomenal. Google is at the forefront of the surveillance economy — making money by harvesting the digital exhaust we all emit just living our connected lives.
Fitness devices and apps can track what we eat, how much we weigh, when we exercise, sleep and have low blood sugar. They know that your heart-rate increases when you shop at your favorite store, can predict menstrual cycles, record body mass index and interpret your intimate cuddling habits. And you thought that gift you were about to buy benefited the recipient. Actually, you’re paying Google to improve your personalized tracking profile that they can sell to advertisers. Which you might be okay with, but you deserve to know enough to have the choice.
In a related story, 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 on millions of Americans.
Code-named Project Nightingale, the secret collaboration began last year and, according to the Wall Street Journal, “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.
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. And behavior prediction is the holy grail of the surveillance economy.
For the time being, you control many of the inputs that fuel the surveillance economy – but changing behavior is hard. I know because even I have to make intentional choices about how I share my health data. The keyword in that sentence is intentional.
For example, you can choose to take off your Fitbit or trust your data with Apple, which is a hardware and media company where Google is an information aggregation company. You can change the default privacy settings on your phone, your tracker and your profile. 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 and security 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.
Meta: Are you comfortable having Google own your Fitbit data to add your heart rate, exercise frequency, current weight, and sleep habits to everything else they track about you? But they promise not to share…