Google’s Fitbit Purchase: Peek into Next-Level Local Dominance and Healthcare Hacking
The announcement that Google plans to acquire Fitbit sparked immediate concerns about privacy, spurring users to delete their Fitbit data before the search behemoth takes control. Google paid lip service to privacy concerns and immediately said it would not sell user data or even leverage the data to sell more personalized ads.
But as Patrick Lucas Austin points out in Time, selling ads, while Google’s core moneymaker, is not the only value it could potentially squeeze out of data on wearable users’ heart rates and exercise habits. Austin clarifies that the purchase of Fitbit gives Google access to not only reams of user data but also the many partners Fitbit has already established in the health care industry, paving the way for Google’s incursion into the space. NYU Professor and Vox commentator Scott Galloway has called health care one of the ripest markets for disruption and predicts Amazon, buoyed by its vast delivery network, will be the most successful tech giant to intervene in the industry.
Prescriptions by Google, then? The company indeed lacks Amazon’s delivery capabilities but has a stranglehold on search and therefore on consumers’ connections to local businesses. It is not hard to imagine a world in which Google appears to keep its privacy promise by refusing to sell ads directly based on Fitbit user data but still capitalizes on the data by using it to connect Fitbit users with local health care service providers, pharmacists, and even gyms. That would just constitute one more way Google is edging out the digital middlemen that once closed the loop from Google search to a local service provider. Google could predict the need for and stimulate a health care-related search via wearable data, own the digital property on which the search takes place, register that an appointment has been made, and even possibly close the loop on attribution via location data from Maps or purchase data from Google Pay.
Google’s health-care ambitions are another sign that, as sociologist Shoshana Zuboff argues in her landmark book on surveillance capitalism, privacy is antithetical to the economic order that makes Google and Facebook tick. Google may not use Fitbit data directly to sell ads, but the company’s entire business model is predicated on collecting information that can be used to predict and even automate people’s behavior, making the prediction products it sells more valuable and B2B partnerships with it indispensable. Even if Google only uses behavioral and wellness data to ‘improve’ users’ paths to health-care purchases, monitoring and even informing customers of when they need care and where to get it, the company will have effectively turned that data into capital returns. Mastering the hyperlocal pathway to health services would allow Google to boost its nearly unmatched understanding of consumers, its ability to influence their behavior, and the incentives for service providers and drug sellers to team up with Google and build out their presence on its platform (paid or unpaid) or risk sinking into irrelevance. That would not mark a victory for privacy advocates. It would be a symbol of privacy’s destruction and Google’s ever-growing control.
Google’s senior vice president for devices and services, Rick Osterloh, is telling it straight, then, in one sentence in his blog post announcing Google’s acquisition of Fitbit. It’s the sentence in which he writes of Google, “We believe technology is at its best when it can fade into the background, assisting you throughout your day whenever you need it.” Indeed, Google’s ideal is to become part of our cultural and no longer figurative DNA, passing into the natural order of things, guiding and eventually making decisions for us rather than simply providing information.