26th Feb 2021


Google, Fitbit, and a big decision for EU Commission

  • Google's acquisition of Fitbit would give the company access to a vast new dataset containing the intimate, biometric data of almost 30 million people (Photo: Carlos Luna)

In the coming days the European Commission seems poised to green-light the acquisition of Fitbit by Google.

The deal is a major threat to human rights and must be stopped in its tracks until a full and proper investigation into the human rights impact of the merger takes place.

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Anything less will send a clear green-light to Silicon Valley - and to billions of Internet users - that, for all its tough talk, the EU is happy with 'business-as usual' - no matter what the costs are to people's rights.

The EU's own auditor recently criticised the commission for being too slow to rein in Big Tech. With the imminent decision on the Fitbit takeover, the commission has an opportunity to show that this time it is prepared to act before it's too late.

Google's acquisition of Fitbit would give the company access to a vast new dataset containing the intimate, biometric data of almost 30 million people.

It raises alarm bells that this data could be cross-matched with the gargantuan amount of data that Google already has about its users from its dominance across a whole range of services (Search, Ads, Android, Gmail, YouTube, Pay and Maps to name a few).

The scale of the data Google holds means that you don't have to be a Fitbit user to feel concerned about what the deal will mean for you.

It's enough for Google to obtain biometric data from someone statistically similar to you for the company to be able to infer things about your health and lifestyle that you would never otherwise permit them to know.

Google already creates highly-personalised 'superprofiles' in order to predict behaviour and target advertisements at users. Adding biometric data to the mix would allow it to make even more invasive predictions about people – based on insights about their very biology. This kind of data is a gold mine to a company that has its sights set on the health sector.

"Health Tech" is already a $100bn [€82.4bn] business and one that is projected to rise substantially in the coming years.

Big Pharma, life insurance companies and a broad range of start-ups providing personalised healthcare are all jostling for health-data insights to make predictions about people and infer risk.

Fitbit's CEO knew this was his company's value when he said, "ultimately Fitbit is going to be about the data."

Surveillance capitalism

These are the mechanics of surveillance capitalism at work – the fact that Google's business model was designed from the get-go to mine, profile and influence people at scale by capturing their data – and attention – and selling it to others.

Last year, Amnesty International warned that this "surveillance-based business model" poses an unprecedented threat to human rights by forcing people to make a Faustian bargain: give up their intimate data – and their rights – in order to participate in today's digital world.

This is simply not a legitimate choice and invalidates the so-called 'consent' that Google relies on to justify its invasive data practices.

The Google-Fitbit merger is set to compound this problem.

We have already seen that AI-driven insights can be used to target people based on sensitive personal information, including inferences about their health status. Such data is also being used to inform sensitive decisions about who can access health insurance or financial services, and at what cost.

Sleep patterns and heartbeat

Fitbit would give Google access to granular detail about millions of people's sleeping patterns, heart rate, fitness levels and movements, allowing them to make even more intrusive inferences about people's health.

While this is undoubtedly a data-protection issue, it is also squarely a competition problem.

When a single company provides near-ubiquitous digital services to two billion people, meaningful choice to the consumer no longer exists.

Google's sheer size and power mean that people have no control in how their data is used or how they are targeted by Google's advertising apparatus (whether or not they use Google services themselves).

At the same time, the fact that the company has a monopoly on so much data, means that it is uniquely positioned to leverage the insights it can glean from existing parts of its business to further entrench its reach and dominance in other areas (such as health tech).

Google has told the EU commission that it could undertake not to use any Fitbit data for advertising purposes for a period of five years, something which the commission is considering as a possible remedy.

Yet, green-lighting the merger on this basis - with the looming risk that this data will be combined down the line - would be irresponsible and naive.

Google pledged to do the same when it acquired DoubleClick in 2008 but has since backtracked.

Facebook made similar public assurances when it acquired WhatsApp in 2014, only to change its privacy policy two years later to allow data sharing between the services, including for ad-targeting.

While companies are happy to make such commitments upfront, they bank on the fact not much can be done when they later change course.

In the past few years, people worldwide have woken up to the perils of Big Tech and the havoc that the surveillance-based business model has wrought not just on individual rights but on society writ-large.

A poll by Amnesty International of people in nine countries showed that nearly 8 in 10 people (77 percent) believe the central business model underpinning the internet today is a major problem with a clear majority wanting governments to do more to rein in Big Tech.

With the EU's new Digital Service Act still some way off being agreed, let alone implemented, the commission's competition authority is even more critical as a safeguard to protect people's rights.

If it permits Google/Fitbit to go ahead now, without proper attention to the possible human rights impacts, we will be living with the consequences for decades to come.

Author bio

Tanya O’Carroll is director of technology for Amnesty International.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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