Pando

You can run, but you can't hide: Google expands its real-world surveillance system with Google Fit

By Nathaniel Mott , written on October 29, 2014

From The News Desk

Google is getting into the health-tracking business.

The company has developed an application that allows Android smartphone owners to collect health-related information in one place. It's called Google Fit, and besides challenging Apple's HealthKit service, it also represents Google's efforts to gather real-world data to complement the information it already has about the digital world.

It's no longer enough for companies to track someone's activity across the Web by monitoring their emails, analyzing their browsing history, or keeping tabs on their online searches. All that information now needs to be supplemented with data about what someone's doing in the real world, whether that's demonstrated through location tracking or through a health application.

Why else would so many companies rush to help people track their steps, count their calories, or collect other health-related information? It's not just about making self quantification more convenient for the few self-obsessed consumers who actually use that information. It's also about increasing the amount of information that can be offered to advertisers -- maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but certainly as soon as these companies can get away with it.

I wrote about these efforts to gather real-world information earlier this month, when Reuters revealed that Facebook was also considering the addition of health-related info to its services:

This obsession is yet another example of the tech industry’s systematic degradation of the few barriers that stand between them and complete knowledge about the millions (or billions) of people who use its wares every day. Google made its way into our homes with its Dropcam acquisition. Apple built increasingly observant sensors into its iPhones. Facebook figured out how to track people around the Web even as they move between smartphones, tablets, and PCs.

But there’s something uniquely worrisome about allowing these companies, two of which base their businesses on providing data to advertisers, to gather information about our bodies. Homes change. Ads based on browsing activity are creepy but usually harmless. Our bodies, however, are obviously more personal than our surroundings or our online movements. It's especially worrisome for a company like Google to be gathering so much real world data. The company has historically struggled with striking the right balance between its presumed right to gather information and consumers' actual right to privacy. For example, it's been tracking the locations of countless people to serve better advertisements and improve Google Maps. It's also cquiring an increasing number of services that surveil consumers' homes. And finally, It's building drones that could gather information about anyone beneath their flight path, like a murder of all-seeing crows.

Now the company has released an application that uses the sensors present in most Android smartphones -- seriously, the company brags about this in its announcement post, as if people shouldn't be worried about what else the company could add to its smartphones --  to monitor someone's location, along with whether they're riding a bicycle or moving via their own two feet. What are people going to do if this application is ever built into Android smartphones by default? Hope that they can somehow remove it in a futile effort to preserve privacy?

Google Fit seems like a convenient way to gather health information. The question consumers should ask themselves is whether it's meant to make their lives easier, or if it's meant to expand the scope of Google's for-profit surveillance network so the company can continue to build its business on the backs of advertisers whose hunger for knowledge will never be fully satisfied.

[illustration by Hallie Bateman]