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  • Thierry Spanjaard

Fitbit to get better soon with pervasive Google Health data treatment

In a couple days emerged the acquisition of Fitbit by Google and the scandal about Google access to health data of millions of Americans. This is probably the best example on how data coming from official health sources such as hospitals and physicians and data generated by our own health-tracking and fitness connected devices are now intertwined. By combining these data, one may have the best knowledge of our health both in statistical terms and individually.

Google just announced last week they are acquiring Fitbit, a leading vendor of personal health and fitness tracking devices for US$ 2.1 billion (EUR 1.9 billion). Over years, Fitbit has sold over 100 million devices that connect to Android and iOS. Partners in the deal lift the curtain on their goal to integrate “the best hardware, software and AI, to build wearables to help even more people around the world” and at the same time promise that “the company never sells personal information, and Fitbit health and wellness data will not be used for Google ads”.

For Google, the acquisition of Fitbit can also be seen as a deeper involvement in hardware, after its investments in Google Nest, Google Home, Pixel, Google Wifi, … However, most analysts consider Google investment in hardware is mainly meant to channel more users to the company’s software and services offer. As Fitbit products are intrinsically linked to human bodies they provide an avenue to Google for acquiring more intimate personal health and location data.

Moreover, Fitbit includes the Fitbit Pay offer, which was built further to the integration of Coin, one among several companies that attempted to make multi-account payment cards. Besides its acquisition in 2016, Coin had developed an offer for wearable payments that has been integrated later by Fitbit to be marketed under the Fitbit Pay brand name. Google Pay is way behind other players, such as Apple Pay, Samsung Pay or even Starbucks, in the mobile payment market; integrating Fitbit Pay could give Google the boost it needs in the payment market.

At the same time, Google announced it is collecting health data on millions of Americans through a partnership with Ascension, one of the country's largest nonprofit health systems. The project, called “Nightingale,” aims at collecting and analyzing detailed personal-health information of millions of people across 21 states. According to the Wall Street Journal, the partnership started in secret last year with Ascension, a Catholic chain of 2,600 hospitals, doctors’ offices and other facilities. Under the arrangement, the data of all Ascension patients could eventually be uploaded to Google’s cloud computing platform. No patient was asked whether they accepted their data to be shared on Google servers. The data collected in the program includes “lab results, doctor diagnoses and hospitalization records, among other categories, and amounts to a complete health history, complete with patient names and dates of birth,” and that as many as 150 Google employees may have had access to the data, according to the Wall Street Journal.

However, Google promises they ensure the privacy of data are compliant with HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), a 1996 regulation that specifies how Personally Identifiable Information should be handled.

A permanent data collection from a combination of medical and fitness sources gives a full extensive access to very personal data of each citizen. Just add a pinch AI in the picture and you get the best predictive tool for the health of each of us. Such data could prove extremely pervasive and be used for direct and invasive objectives. However, Google is not alone in this pursuit. Microsoft and Amazon are also building out ambitious healthcare strategies. Healthcare is considered a US$ 3.5 trillion (EUR 3.2 trillion) industry in the US alone.

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