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Google claims it has purchased Fitbit, but US government says investigation is ongoing

 (Getty Images for Fitbit)
(Getty Images for Fitbit)

Google and Fitbit have announced that the companies are merging, but the US Department of Justice says that investigation of the acquisition is still ongoing.

“Today, I’m excited to announce that Google has completed its acquisition of Fitbit and I want to personally welcome this talented team to Google” wrote Rick Osterloh, Google’s Senior Vice President of Devices and Services in a blog post on 14 January.

Fitbit CEO James Park wrote that “Fitbit is now officially part of Google”.

However, Politico reporter Leah Nylen reports that the US government “has not reached a final decision about whether to pursue an enforcement action.”

“The Division continues to investigate whether Google’s acquisition of Fitbit may harm competition and consumers in the United States. The Division remains committed to conducting this review as thoroughly, efficiently, and expeditiously as possible”.

"We complied with the DOJ's (Justice Department's) extensive review for the past 14 months, and the agreed upon waiting period expired without their objection," a Google spokesperson said. "We continue to be in touch with them and weâre committed to answering any additional questions."

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“We continue to be in touch with them and we're committed to answering any additional questions. We are confident this deal will increase competition in the highly crowded wearables market, and we've made commitments that we plan to implement globally."

Such confusion comes as Fitbit users who had deleted their account ahead of the prospective merger nevertheless received emails from Fitbit to private addresses.

“In 2019 I made a HUGE deal about having you permanently delete my data before Google bought you, and your helpdesk said you erased me. Yet I just received an email from you at my private email address. How did this happen?”, wrote software engineer and author Tanya Janca.

“I do not want google having my personal data that I kept in your systems. You promised me (check your DMs to me) that I was erased, BEFORE the merger”, she continued.

Chris Garaffa, author of the technology newsletter “Tech for the People”, said they had experienced the same occurrence.

Neither Google nor Fitbit responded to a request for comment from The Independent before publication.

Google paid $2.1 billion for the acquisition of fitness-gadget maker Fitbit, although news of the merger raised alarms from privacy critics.

Google makes most of its money by selling ads based on information it collects about its billions of users' interests and whereabouts. Privacy watchdogs feared it might exploit Fitbit to peer even deeper into people's lives.

But Google wound up entering a series of commitments in Europe and other parts of the world pledging it won't use the health and fitness data from Fitbit's 29 million users to sell more ads.

It insists it is more interested in adding Fitbit to its expanding arsenal of internet-connected products, which include smartphones, laptops, speakers, cameras and thermostats.

Australia has also not yet approved Google’s acquisition of Fitbit, but the search giant won EU antitrust approval last month for its Fitbit bid after agreeing to restrictions on how it will use customers' health-related data.

Google claims that it will maintain a technical separation between Google user data and Fitbit user data, and ensure that users have an “effective choice” to deny Google’s other services having access to their health and wellness data.

Fitbit's fitness trackers and other devices monitor users' steps and calories burned. They also measure floors climbed, heart rate, and how long and how well people sleep.

Whether or not that will tangibly matter remains to be seen. Unsealed documents from a lawsuit against Google show that the company’s own software developers could not understand how to disable location information.

“Speaking as a user, WTF? More specifically I **thought** I had location tracking turned off on my phone,” the software engineer reportedly said in the released chat logs.

“So our messaging around this is enough to confuse a privacy focused [Google software engineer]. That’s not good.”

Additional reporting by agencies

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