Amazon's Halo health tracker raises Amy Klobuchar's privateness issues

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After reading a review of Amazon's new fitness tracker, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, wrote an open letter.

"Recent reports have raised concerns about Halo's access to this vast amount of personal and private health information," lawmakers wrote to US Secretary of Health Alex Azar. "Among the publicly available consumer health devices, the Halo appears to collect an unprecedented level of personal information."

The Senator is far from being the first reviewer to express concern about the fitness tracker – the Halo raised eyebrows when it was revealed in August. However, she is one of the few critics who is able to actually do something about the device, which both has a microphone that is always on and asks the wearer to perform a full-body scan.

"I wear my Fitbit" Klobuchar says in an interview with TechCrunch. It takes a moment before correcting itself. "Oh, I didn't wear it this morning. It's very bad. I wear a Fitbit almost every day. I've sometimes gone years without it, but I've been wearing it since around February."

The senator is certainly not alone. According to a January 2020 report by Pew, roughly one in five adults in the US regularly wears a smartwatch or fitness tracker. I'm wearing one as I type this, and chances are you'll wear one too. The Halo may cross a line for some, but the device is far from being the first tracker to raise concern among privacy advocates. Klobuchar says that while the Halo's specific level of data collection "only calls for one kind of rules and regulations," tighter scrutiny and regulation is needed for the category across the board.

"I really think there have to be rules," she says. “The reason I'm writing to HHS is because they should have a bigger role to play in ensuring the privacy of health, but between the HHS and the Federal Trade Commission, they have to make some rules to protect private health information. And I think the Amazon Halo is just the ultimate example of this, but there are a number of other devices that experience the same problems. I think there are some government regulations and things like that, and we just need federal standards. "

The letter contains four questions for Azar and HHS related to the department's role in protecting health data. Amazon defends the product in two ways: body scanning and speech collection are optional, and the company does not have direct access to this locally stored data.

When asked about the answer to the letter, TechCrunch said:

We contacted Senator Klobuchar's office to answer their questions about Amazon Halo. Privacy is a key requirement for how we designed and built Amazon Halo. Body and tone are optional features that are not required in order to use the product. Amazon does not have access to body scan images or sound language samples. We are transparent about the privacy practices for this service and you can read more in the Amazon Halo privacy white paper.

"(The letter is specifically about) that you protect private health information, ensure security and privacy," Klobuchar told TechCrunch. "And even if Amazon Halo says they are doing all of these, every company that does this must have road rules in place."

Health concerns have been at the fore since Google announced plans to acquire Fitbit for $ 2.1 billion in November 2019. At this point in time, the conclusion of the contract should be expected in 2020. That schedule has since proven too optimistic. In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission in August, Fitbit said the deadline could still be postponed to May 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic may have contributed to this delay, but Google’s The biggest hurdle so far has been government approval. A number of groups and individuals have raised concerns about the deal, including Amnesty International. In August the EU stated that the deal "could further strengthen Google's position in the online advertising markets by increasing the already large amount of data that Google can use to personalize the ads it serves and displays".

After opening an investigation into the deal, the Commission gave the deal a green light earlier this week with major reservations. At the top of the list is Google's 10 year commitment not to use Fitbit health data for ad targeting. The EU. has also reserved the right to extend the protection for a further 10 years.

Klobuchar believes the privacy restrictions were necessary. "I think the decision on whether or not they are enough should be made by our own regulators based on the facts in the US. I'm glad they created the data silo. (…) And I think we have to Much improve our merger review We should use these mergers either to say "no because they are so anti-competitive" or to impose conditions on them. "

Increased antitrust control was a key project for the senator. In August 2019, she and Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal introduced the Monopolization Deterrent Act. Klobuchar hopes that the bill will be passed after the new president takes office.

"This new session will be the moment," she tells TechCrunch. “The Trump administration actually brought these major cases. They were late in the game but they actually ended up doing their job here. However, the president was not organized enough in terms of focus to actually legislate on monopolies. I think that this is up to the Biden administration and the next working group that does this. "

However, any significant effort to reduce the size and influence of technology companies must go beyond just increasing regulatory control at the time of acquisition. In many cases this bridge was crossed a long time ago.

"It is not just future monopoly mergers being considered," says Klobuchar. "It looks back on what happened. This is the Facebook suit. This is the Google suit different. There are still things about DoubleClick and everything, but mostly it's about how they use their monopoly power. They can So get sued for looking back on mergers (they do on Facebook), but you can also get sued for what we call "exclusive" behavior if you've done anti-competitive things. "

The senator who wears Fitbit is quick to close by adding that she's not anti-tech per se. “I think the innovations are great. I use them all the time, despite having had some fun online ordering experience, even though I now have six two pound items of maple yogurt. I got it wrong and thought there were little yogurts in my fridge. I think they are great, but I think they can still be great if they allow our competition to be better. "