Privacy concerns lead Fitbit to hire a lobbyist in DC

By Brian Dolan
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FitbitAbout a week ago Fitbit hired a lobbyist firm to represent its interests on the Hill, as the National Journal reported. According to the official lobbyist registration form, Heather Podesta + Partners will help Fitbit "educate lawmakers regarding health and fitness devices". The form also lists two general issues of interest to Fitbit: health care issues and consumer issues around safety and protection. Considering the lashing Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) gave Fitbit in early August, the move to hire a lobbyist isn't a surprising one.

"US Senator Charles E. Schumer revealed today that personal health and fitness data – so rich that an individual can be identified by their gait – is being gathered and stored by fitness bracelets like ‘FitBit’ and others like it, and can potentially be sold to third parties, like employers, insurance providers and other companies, without the users’ knowledge or consent," a release from Schumer's office stated in early August. "Schumer said that this creates a privacy nightmare, given that these fitness trackers gather highly personal information on steps per day, sleep patterns, calories burned, and GPS locations... There are currently no federal protections to prevent those developers from then selling that data to a third party without the wearer’s consent. Schumer therefore urged the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to push for fitness device and app companies to provide a clear and obvious opportunity to 'opt-out' before any personal health data is provided to third parties, who could discriminate against the user based on that sensitive and private health information."

About two week's later, Schumer touted Fitbit as a model for other fitness tracking companies to follow after it tweaked its privacy policy.

"Schumer today praised Fitbit’s new privacy policy which now clearly states that they will never sell personal data that identifies an individual," the senator's office wrote. "Fitbit will only share data when it is (1) legally necessary or (2) when the data is de-identified and aggregated, or (3) when the user opts-in and directs the company to share data." 

In a statement to the National Journal, Fitbit noted: "While our policy was updated, our practices have not changed. It has always been our policy not to sell user data. We have never sold personal data and we do not share personal data unless a user specifically directs us to do so, or under the limited exceptions described in our privacy policy."

UPDATE: A Fitbit spokesperson told MobiHealthNews in an email that the timing of the privacy policy update was coincidental, and not caused by Schumer's remarks.

Apple's recent posting of rules for developers making use of its HealthKit platform, which among other things bans them from selling data obtained via HealthKit with third parties like ad platforms and data brokers, helped to bring the issue to a head. For example, given its massive, targeted advertising business, Google is widely expected to use data from its Google Fit platform to help serve more personalized ads.

Heather Podesta + Partners has worked with other digital health companies, including ZocDoc, which hired the firm during the second quarter of this year to "educate members of congress about the potential to use technology to improve access to care, reduce wait times, and improve patient engagement," according to a recent filing. The firm monitored legislative and regulatory efforts related to improving access to care in the VA system and held meeting with both houses of congress, the White House, and the VA on ZocDoc's behalf.

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