Google is planning to acquire Fitbit for $2.1 billion, Google’s senior vice president of devices and services, Rick Osterloh, announced Friday. The goal is “helping more people with wearables,” which sounds modest until you remember Google’s ambitions for its devices to quietly anticipate and run your life. Google has already ventured into the world of health sensors with Wear OS, which runs on partner devices, and down the line, we can expect to see Google smartwatches, which helps explain why Google might acquire a hardware-maker like Fitbit.* That expertise may be valuable, but so is Fitbit’s data. As Reuters noted a few days ago, reporting on the brink of the deal, information collected by Fitbit’s fitness trackers and other devices is where “much of the company’s value may now lie.”
It is difficult to understate how much data Fitbit can collect on its 28 million active users. The most basic device, a children’s Fitbit, keeps track of steps and sleep. More advanced devices, including Fitbit’s smartwatches, track heart rate, running pace, and offer the option to log menstrual cycles (from there, Fitbit can estimate when you’re ovulating). Fitbit’s smart scales can track weight, body mass index, and even what percent of your weight is body fat. Fitbit’s apps (which include a free version, no hardware required) encourage users to track food, blood sugar, jogging routes, menstrual cycles, and water intake, and encourage users to set goals. Fitbit Care, an “engagement platform” and coaching service that companies can offer employees, links all this data to your workplace. And now Google could have it too—your steps, your BMI, and your ambitions.
Even if you do not own a Fitbit—or are currently smashing yours with a hammer—you’ll soon live in a world where Google can make smarter predictions about what your health might be. Last year, Fitbit gave tech critic David Pogue a glimpse at trends gleaned from 150 billion hours of heart data, “the biggest set of heart-rate data ever collected,” Pogue wrote. (Fittingly for a company that hoovers up personal info, Fitbit requested that Pogue and his wife submit journals of their major life events from the past few years.) Based on trends in its data, if it wanted to, Fitbit could guess your resting heart rate based on how much sleep or movement you engage in, or even what country you live in.
The most obvious use of all this data is selling you stuff: nutrition bars when you’re on a weight loss kick, running shorts when you’re training for a race, yoga blocks when you’re feeling stressed. “Fitbit health and wellness data will not be used for Google ads,” Osterloh noted in the statement. That leaves out other personal data, like location and birthdays, the Associated Press points out. There’s also more that Google can do with data than sell ads—namely, research.
Even if it is hard to care about your personal data being shared in yet another way, consider what it would mean for Google to possess some of the largest troves of health data. Information on menstrual cycles, for example, is very valuable to researchers who are interested in getting a better grip on complicated disorders, like endometriosis. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, now has the potential to control an even larger portion of health science than it already does. Alphabet owns Verily, which creates “tools that put health data into action.” Right now the company is working on developing smart lenses, surgical robots, and eating utensils for people with limited mobility, among many other things. Even when it partners with other companies and researchers (one project is tandem with pharmaceutical manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline, for example), Google will hold a lot of sway over how the data is distributed, what kinds of questions are asked, and to what end.
Surely a lot of helpful insights and products might come out of Alphabet’s health efforts. But to get those, we have to put our trust in a company whose main goal is not public health. What if some of those wearables overincentivize the wrong goals, like BMI? What if we’re stuck with step counts, a flawed metric, forever? What if the wearables themselves are fine, but their main use is in giving health insurance companies and employers a way to keep constant, invasive tabs on everyone? That having the latest fancy fitness tracker matters to one’s well-being is the central pitch of the Fitbit, as a device. Soon we’ll learn to what end one of the world’s most powerful tech companies plans to take it.
Correction, Nov. 1, 2019: This post originally misidentified Wear OS as Wearable OS.