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"Not Just a Business Deal, It's a Data Grab": Privacy Advocates Sound Alarm on Google's Acquisition of FitBit

"There is no reason to trust Google's assurances about privacy protection."

Google parent company Alphabet announced plans to purchase smartwatch maker Fitbit for $2.1 billion.

Fitbit smartwatches are displayed at a Best Buy store on November 01, 2019 in San Rafael, California. Google parent company Alphabet announced plans to purchase smartwatch maker Fitbit for $2.1 billion. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Google's announcement Friday that it intends on acquiring digital fitness tracker maker Fitbit has raised the eyebrows of privacy advocates in the U.S. and U.K. who say regulators should oppose the deal.

"This is not just a business deal, it's a data grab—and that should worry us all," Tom Watson, the Labour Party's digital, culture, media, and sport secretary, wrote to the U.K's Competition and Markets Authority.

The two companies announced the intended $2.1 billion deal last week Friday. Reuters first reported the deal. 

As Reuters reported,

Google already has a vast stores of data it uses to market to people, everything from what they read online to what they watch on YouTube, to where they go using Google Maps. The deal would give the advertising giant a treasure trove of information about everything from how well Fitbit's 27.6 million users sleep at night, to when and how they exercise.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), in a statement on Monday, pointed to (pdf) Fitbit and Google's tack record as cause for concern.

"First, Fitbit gathers sensitive personal data that should not be transferred to others," said EPIC president Marc Rotenber. "Last year, the Department of Defense prohibited military personnel from using geolocation features on their fitness devices because of privacy and security concerns."

"Second, there is no reason to trust Google's assurances about privacy protection," he continued, noting that the web giant "routinely breaks its commitments and conceals its tracking capabilities." Rotenber pointed to  an incident earlier in the year when "Google admitted it built a hidden microphone in the Nest alarm system. The Google Home Mini was released with the device set to always record. These stories go back more than a decade."

"Third, innovation emerges from competition, not acquisition. If Google wants to sell a fitness device, it should devote its considerable expertise and resources to developing a better product than Fitbit," Rotenber said.

While "FTC Chairman Simons and Assistant Attorney General Delrahim have stated that the tech industry needs greater scrutiny," the proof will be in the pudding, said Rotenber, calling the proposed acquisition "a test of their commitment to competition, innovation, and data protection."

5by5 Podcast Network founder Dan Benjamin weighed in on the controversy as well, saying in a tweet that proposed acquisition "is 100% about tracking people."

"This acquisition deserves careful scrutiny because of the massive trove of health data involved," added Emily Peterson-Cassin, the Digital Rights Advocate for Public Citizen's Congress Watch.

"Regulators need to understand how this deal will affect the privacy of Fitbit owners, the security of the data their devices have collected about them, and what those things mean for future of competition against Google," she said in a statement to Common Dreams. "This is very sensitive data, and there are potential public health consequences that must be considered stemming from its transfer," Peterson-Cassin continued. "There are also potential implications for the ability of new firms without a giant data cache to compete."

Fitbit, in its statement, said the deal is expected to be finalized in 2020.

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