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Pentagon Reviewing Troops’ Use of Fitness Trackers In Light of Security Concerns

A map produced by fitness tracker Strava showed apparent troop locations and movements. Pentagon Reviewing Troops’ Use of Fitness Trackers In Light of Security Concerns

The Pentagon is reviewing policies that allow deployed troops to use activity-measuring devices and fitness apps that rely on GPS tracking, after publication of a digital map online accidentally exposed information that could reveal where American troops are deployed or even precisely where they exercise overseas.

An interactive display called the Global Heat Map, published online by the fitness app Strava, is based on satellite information gathered to track the location and activity level of its users.

The map has existed online since fall, but an Australian researcher demonstrated over the weekend how it could potentially be used to track the movement and locations of military formations, including U.S. troops. Many wear such devices to monitor their fitness activity.

Portions of the map show areas that likely constitute running or patrol routes for troops in places like east Africa, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan—anywhere troops are deployed but where their locations and numbers aren’t necessarily disclosed by the U.S. military, analysts said.

The publication of the map amounted to a potential security breach for the Pentagon, which usually avoids publicly disclosing even how many troops it has deployed to any given country, let alone where they patrol or run for exercise.

Col. Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, said Monday that officials weren’t aware that troops have been directly endangered. He said the military is reviewing the issue to see if it should adjust its policies or training as a result.

The Pentagon hasn’t banned use of the devices, Col. Manning said. But it did give discretion to commanders across the military to decide if they would allow their troops to use such devices or not. Other devices, such as Fitbit s, work on a similar basis, by transmitting data so it can be stored online and later analyzed by their wearers.

Strava Inc. in a statement encouraged users to opt out of device-tracking apps.

Fitbit officials said most of their users aren’t synchronized with Strava.

An Additional Resource For Fitbit Users IsThis Page.

“Only users that have signed up for Strava and have given consent to synchronize their Strava and Fitbit accounts are included in the Strava heat map—Fitbit devices do not automatically connect to the map,” according to a spokesman for Fitbit. “The vast majority of Fitbit users are not Strava users and would not be included in Strava’s data set.”

Some commanders already forbid troops from using so-called wearables, or require that the settings on the devices be adjusted to prevent the possibility that data can be used to track troops’ whereabouts.

“Operational security and force protection require constant vigilance,” Col. Manning told reporters. “We’re taking a look at it, and we’ve already got policies out there that specify for service members to be very specific about their security settings and we’re going to take a look at this now to determine if additional policy needs to be created in order to address this.”

Col. Manning said that as of Monday, he wasn’t aware that the military had tried to reach out to Strava Inc.

Security experts said it wasn’t a surprise that such information is publicly available, and fits a broader pattern regarding the way in which technology allows even information as simple as exercise data to be potentially exploited.

“We’re seeing the end of secrets,” said Peter W. Singer, a strategist at New America in Washington, D.C. and author of the book “Ghost Fleet,” whose plot features the security vulnerabilities of such wearables. “Almost every act, important or unimportant, is all being gathered and mined.”

In Australia, where the data was first identified as a potential safety threat by a university security academic, the military said Tuesday it didn’t believe the Strava app data had breached the operational security of Australian soldiers deployed to conflict areas.

“The circumstances of this application do not constitute a security breach,” said a statement released by the Australian Defense Force, which has contributed special forces, regular soldiers and warplanes to US-led coalitions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and the Philippines.

The close U.S. ally, which recently withdrew warplanes from bombing operations against Islamic State over Syria, said all of its active personnel were briefed about cyberthreats—including the risks of sharing data from satellite-tracking fitness apps like Strava—during mandatory security training carried out each year.

“Many of these devices and activities are important to the quality of life of Defense staff,” the military statement said. “On operations, the online presence of Australian Defense Force personnel and their use of electronic devices is managed in accordance with operational security requirements developed for each activity,” it said.

Updated: 11-1-2019

Google to Buy Fitbit, Amping Up Wearables Race

Deal to acquire maker of wearable fitness products for $2.1 billion extends Google’s reach in consumer electronics.

Google reached a deal to buy wearable fitness products company Fitbit Inc. for roughly $2.1 billion, a move that intensifies the battle among technology giants to capture consumers through devices other than smartphones.

For Google, the deal marks a further push into consumer electronics, an area where it has yet to gain significant traction to complement its massive internet-search and advertising business. It also puts Google in renewed and direct competition with Apple Inc., which this week said rising sales of wearables and related services were becoming a bigger driver of its earnings.

Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc., said Friday it will acquire the maker of fitness trackers and smartwatches for $7.35 a share in cash, a 19% premium to Fitbit’s closing price Thursday and a more than 70% premium from last week before deal talks were first reported by Reuters.

Fitbit shares rose 16% in morning trading while Alphabet’s shares ticked up slightly.

The deal lands at a moment when Google and other tech giants are under scrutiny on a number of fronts over their competitive practices and dominance of certain businesses.

Fitbit makes so-called wearables, or watches and bracelets that primarily track health information like heart rate. It also has a paid subscription service that suggests exercises and other lifestyle changes based on the individual data it collects.

Given that Fitbit collects such myriad and personal data on its users, the deal will also raise issues around consumer privacy. In announcing the acquisition, Google said it would not use Fitbit data to help power its massive online advertising business.

“Similar to our other products, with wearables, we will be transparent about the data we collect and why,” Rick Osterloh, the head of Google’s hardware division, said in a statement. ”We will never sell personal information to anyone. Fitbit health and wellness data will not be used for Google ads. And we will give Fitbit users the choice to review, move, or delete their data.”

The regulatory scrutiny hasn’t brought Silicon Valley deal making to a halt. Google agreed in June to pay $2.6 billion for Looker, a maker of business intelligence and data analytics software, to bolster its cloud business. Facebook Inc. this fall reached a deal to buy brain-computer interface technology startup CTRL-Labs Inc.

For all their promise, wearables as a category have had as many misses as hits. Google several years ago launched a brand of smart glasses that attracted as much ridicule as buyers, and Snap Inc. got a similarly disappointing consumer response to its Spectacles line.

Apple in many ways is a model for what Google hopes to execute. While the Apple Watch was initially a disappointment, sales have picked up lately, and the company’s AirPods were an immediate hit. The iPhone maker said on Wednesday that sales in its wearable business soared 54% in the latest quarter.

Google’s purchase of Fitbit shows its interest in bulking up its hardware business, consisting mostly of slow-selling products like the Chromebook laptop and Pixel smartphone. That remains a work in progress. Google has spent billions on targets like HTC Corp. , a smartphone maker, and Nest, a speakers company, with little to show for it in sales, analysts say. Google doesn’t break out financial performance for its hardware division.

It hired Mr. Osterloh, a former Motorola president, in 2016 to steer the nascent unit. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal last month, Mr. Osterloh often referred to the hardware unit as a “startup” within the conglomerate.

“I think eventually this will be a very large, important business,” he said.

Some analysts said the company’s troubled history with hardware warrants skepticism about Google’s ability to integrate Fitbit in its ecosystem of products.

“The acquisition is another example of Google tilting at windmills” in hardware, analysts at Wedbush Securities wrote in a report Friday. “Google is uniformly bad at consumer products in our view, and appears to us to be intent on spending whatever it takes to prove our view wrong.”

James Park and Eric Friedman founded Fitbit in 2007, envisioning that sensors and wireless technology could be integrated for a wearable product to track fitness and health. Fitbit has since sold more than 100 million devices world-wide, and has more than 28 million active users, the company said.

“Google is an ideal partner to advance our mission. With Google’s resources and global platform, Fitbit will be able to accelerate innovation in the wearables category, scale faster, and make health even more accessible to everyone,” Mr. Park, who serves as Fitbit’s CEO, said in a statement. The deal is expected to close in 2020, Fitbit said.

The San Francisco company relies largely on the sale of its devices, but it has been working to expand its subscription business to develop a source of recurring revenue. The company rolled out a new subscription service, Fitbit Premium, earlier this year aimed at providing health and fitness guidance for smartwatch owners.

In the first six months of this year Fitbit reported $585.4 million in revenue, up from $547.2 million in the year-earlier period.

Fitbit’s results have been pressured in recent months. In July, it lowered its full-year revenue outlook after weaker-than-expected sales of its new smartwatch model, Versa Lite. The smartwatches are aimed at competing with popular offerings from Apple and Samsung Electronics Co.

Still, the company reported narrower losses in the second quarter as sales of its fitness trackers jumped 51% and the health division showed some strength. Fitbit is scheduled to release its third-quarter earnings report Nov. 6.

Analysts have said the deal for Fitbit could allow Google to expand its reach into medical technology, an area where technology and health-care companies are competing to develop new ways for consumers to corral their digital health data.

Apple is rolling out online tools that consumers can use to bring together health information siloed in the systems of hospitals, doctors and insurers. Apple said this week that it is continuing to build out its health-records capabilities.

Fitbit’s health division, which partners with programs like Medicare and some health insurers, to develop wellness applications, saw sales climb 16% in the second quarter and are on track to hit $100 million this year, the company said.

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