EFF Legal Intern Rachel Sommers contributed to this post.
When Google announced its intention to buy Fitbit in April, we had deep concerns. Google, a notoriously data-hungry company with a track record of reneging on its privacy policies, was about to buy one of the most successful wearables company in the world —after Google had repeatedly tried to launch a competing product, only to fail, over and over.
Fitbit users give their devices extraordinary access to their sensitive personal details, from their menstrual cycles to their alcohol consumption. In many cases, these "customers" didn't come to Fitbit willingly, but instead were coerced into giving the company their data in order to get the full benefit of their employer-provided health insurance.
Companies can grow by making things that people love, or they can grow by buying things that people love. One produces innovation, the other produces monopolies.
Last month, EFF put out a call for Fitbit owners' own thoughts about the merger, so that we could tell your story to the public and to the regulators who will have the final say over the merger. You obliged with a collection of thoughtful, insightful, and illuminating remarks that you generously permitted us to share. Here's a sampling from the collection:
From K.H.: “It makes me very uncomfortable to think of Google being able to track and store even more of my information. Especially the more sensitive, personal info that is collected on my Fitbit.”
From L.B.: “Despite the fact that I continue to use a Gmail account (sigh), I never intended for Google to own my fitness data and have been seeking an alternative fitness tracker ever since the merger was announced.”
From B.C.: “I just read your article about this and wanted to say that while I’ve owned and worn a Fitbit since the Charge (before the HR), I have been looking for an alternative since I read that Google was looking to acquire Fitbit. I really don’t want “targeted advertisements” based on my health data or my information being sold to the highest bidder.”
From T.F.: “I stopped confirming my period dates, drinks and weight loss on my fitbit since i read about the [Google] merger. Somehow, i would prefer not to become a statistic on [Google].”
From D.M.: “My family has used Fitbit products for years now and the idea of Google merging with them, in my opinion, is good and bad. Like everything in the tech industry, there are companies that hog all of the spotlight like Google. Google owns so many smaller companies and ideas that almost every productivity and shopping app on any mobile platform is in some way linked or owned by them. Fitbit has been doing just fine making their own trackers and products without any help from the tech giants, and that doesn’t need to stop now. I'm not against Google, but they have had a few security issues and their own phone line, the pixel, hasn't been doing that well anyway. I think Fitbit should stay a stand alone company and keep making great products.”
From A.S.: “A few years back, I bought a Fitbit explicitly because they were doing well but didn't seem to be on the verge of being acquired. I genuinely prefer using Android over iOS, and no longer want to take on the work of maintaining devices on third party OSes, so I wanted to be able to monitor steps without thinking it was all going to a central location.
Upon hearing about the merger, I found myself relieved I didn’t use the Fitbit for long (I found I got plenty of steps already and it was just a source of anxiety) so that the data can't be merged with my massive Google owned footprint.”
From L.O.: “A few years ago, I bought a Fitbit to track my progress against weight-loss goals that I had established. Moreover, I have a long-term cardiac condition that requires monitoring by a third-party (via an ICD). So I wanted to have access to medical data that I could collect for myself. I had the choice to buy either an Apple Watch, Samsung Gear, Google Fit gear, or a Fitbit. I chose to purchase a Fitbit for one simple reason: I wanted to have a fitness device that did not belong to an OEM and/or data scavenger. So I bought a very expensive Fitbit Charge 2. I was delighted by the purchase. I had a top-of-the-line fitness device. And I had confidence that my intimate and personal data would be secure; I knew that my personal and confidential data would not be used to either target me or to include me in a targeted group.
Now that Google has purchased Fitbit, I have few options left that will allow me to confidentially collect and store my personal (and private) fitness information. I don't trust Google with my data. They have repeatedly lied about data collection. So I have no confidence in their assertions that they will once again "protect" my data. I trust that their history of extravagant claims followed by adulterous actions will be repeated.
My fears concerning Google are well-founded. And as a result, I finally had to switch my email to an encrypted email from a neutral nation (i.e., Switzerland). And now, I have to spend even more money to protect myself from past purchases that are being hijacked by a nefarious content broker. Why should I have to spend even more money in order to ensure my privacy? My privacy is guaranteed by the United States Constitution, isn't it? And it in an inalienable right, isn't it? Since when can someone steal my right to privacy and transform it into their right to generate even more money? As a citizen, I demand that my right to privacy be recognized and defended by local, state, and federal governments. And in the meantime, I'm hoping that someone will create a truly private service for collecting and storing my personal medical information.”
From E.R.: “Around this time last year, I went to the Nest website. I am slowly making my condo a smart home with Alexa and I like making sure everything can connect to each other. I hopped on and was instantly asked to log in via Google. I was instantly filled with regret. I had my thermostat for just over a year and I knew that I hadn't done my research and the Google giant had one more point of data collection on me - plus it was connected to my light bulbs and Echo. Great.
Soon, I learn the Versa 2 is coming out - best part? It has ALEXA! I sign up right away—this is still safe. Sure. Amazon isn't that great at data secrets, but a heck of a lot better than Google connected apps. Then, I got the news of the merger. I told my boyfriend this would be the last FitBit I owned—but have been torn as it has been a motivating tool for me and a way to be in competition with my family now that we live in different states. But it would be yet another data point for Google, leaving me wondering when it will possibly end.
This may be odd coming from a Gmail account—but frankly, Gmail is the preferred UI for me. I tried to avoid Google search, but it proved futile when I just wasn't getting the same results. Google slowly has more and more of my life—from YouTube videos, to email, to home heating, and now fitness... when is enough enough?”
From J.R.: “My choice to buy a Fitbit device instead of using a GoogleFit related device/app is largely about avoiding giving google more data.
My choice to try Waze during its infancy was as much about its promise to the future as it was that it was not a Google Product and therefore google wouldn't have all of my families sensitive driving data.
Google paid a cheap 1 Billion to purchase all my data from Waze and then proceed to do nothing to improve the app. The app actually performs worse now on the same phone, sometimes taking 30 minutes to acquire GPS satellites that Google Maps (which i can't uninstall) see immediately.
Google now has all my historic driving data for years.... besides the fact that there is no real competitor to Waze and it does not seem like any company will ever try to compete with Google again on Maps and traffic data... why not continue using it? from my history, they can probably predict my future better than me.
The same with Fitbit... Now google will know every place I Run, Jog and walk.... not just where I park but exactly where i go.... is it not enough for them to know i went to the hospital but now they will know which floor (elevation), which wing (precise location data).... they will get into mapping hospitals and other areas.... they will know exactly where we are and what we are doing....
They will also sell our health data to various types of insurance companies, etc.
I believe Google should be broken up and not allowed to share data between the separate companies. I don't believe google should be able to buy out companies that harvest data as part of their mission. If google buys fitbit, i will certainly close the account, delete what I can from it and sell the fitbit (if it has value left)....”
While the overwhelming majority of comments sought to halt the merger, a few people wrote to us in support of it. Here's one of those comments.
From T.W.: “I'm really looking forward to the merger. I see the integration of Fitbit and Google Fit as a great bonus and hope to get far more insights than I get now. Hopefully the integration will progress really soon!”
If you're a Fitbit owner and you're alarmed by the thought of your data being handed to Google, we'd love to hear from you. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and please let us know:
- If we can publish your story (and, if so, whether you'd prefer to be anonymous);
- If we can share your story with government agencies;
- If we can share your email address with regulators looking for testimony.