Juul’s Upcoming Smart Device Could Pose a Major Privacy Risk

Experts are already sounding the alarm over concerns that insurers and employers could get access to data about e-cigarette use

Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

JJuul — the smoking-replacement startup known for its tiny nicotine vapes, fruity flavors, and sky-high valuation — is apparently getting into the data business. The company, which took a $12.8 billion investment from cigarette giant Altria in December, is creating a new Bluetooth-enabled device and corresponding mobile app. Juul claims the offerings are part of its overall mission to help cigarette smokers switch to its product. But the company is also reportedly launching a program that could give third parties access to Juul customer data — including sensitive details such as usage habits.

Experts tell OneZero they’re concerned about the privacy implications of these services.

“Like any technology, an app can be used for good or ill — or more likely a little of both,” says Margaret Foster Riley, a health law expert at the University of Virginia. “I’m not surprised if they sell data to third parties — that’s where the money is.”

Juul entered the market as a product of the vaporizer company Pax Labs in 2015 and quickly became the most popular e-cigarette in America. Sales of the vape blew up between 2016 and 2017, when Juul spun out into its own entity, moving from 2.2 million devices sold in 2016 to 16.2 million sold in 2017 according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Though Juul bills itself as a health-tech company — the product is premised on its ability to help cigarette smokers quit — it’s been accused of sparking a nicotine vaping epidemic among teenagers. E-cigarettes “have the potential to undo years of progress if a new generation of young people becomes addicted to nicotine,” authors affiliated with the anti-tobacco non-profit the Truth Initiative wrote in an op-ed in the Journal of the American Medical Association last year. The concerns put Juul at the center of an investigation by the Food and Drug Administration that probed whether the company deliberately marketed its product to teenagers. Juul has since made branding alterations, such as switching to older models in its ads and changing the names of some flavors, to avoid targeting teens.

But privacy may now become the company’s next area of public concern. Job listings first spotted by Business Insider revealed the company’s plans to develop a mobile application and data-sharing program. The app would be intended to help smokers switch to Juul e-cigarettes and would include a “habit management program” to help users track their vaping and set goals like “drop Juul usage by 20% within the next 4 weeks,” according to one job listing. This app will work in conjunction with a new Bluetooth-enabled Juul device, which the company announced last year.

Other than the intention to collect and share information about an individual’s usage habits, specifics about the third-party data-sharing program aren’t yet available. While Juul’s current privacy policy may be revised once its new Bluetooth device and app launch, the company already reserves the right to share your personal data — such as location, payment information, and email addresses — with third parties. A mobile app, however, could significantly expand what kind of data Juul collects and how much of it the company shares.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Juul tells OneZero, “We are working on a Bluetooth-enabled device that, with an application, could provide access restrictions at the user level and could help people monitor their usage. This new device would first launch in select international markets. We do not have any additional details to share at this time.”

It appears Juul’s forthcoming app would collect information about nicotine use, vaping habits, and, since the app is intended for smokers trying to switch to Juul, whether or not a person smokes cigarettes.

In other words, a primary use of the app would be to restrict how much an individual could use their connected vape. As TechCrunch suggested last year, the device and its connected app could block vaping around schools or insist on age verification.

So far, so good. (Unless you’re worried about someone hacking into your Bluetooth vape and messing with its internal settings, but that’s a different story.) But privacy and health law experts are concerned about the app and the potential risks of sharing the third-party data Juul may collect with it. Nicolas Terry, executive director of the Hall Center for Law and Health at Indiana University, tells OneZero such data could be of interest to several different entities, such as employers and health insurers.

“Discrimination, adverse employment decisions, and insurance costs could all be implicated,” Terry says.

While 29 states and the District of Columbia have laws that prohibit employers from discriminating against individuals who smoke (some of which include e-cigarettes), there is currently no federal law prohibiting it. Some employers have banned cigarette use both on and off the job, because a healthier employee base saves the company money on health insurance. Recently, some companies have folded e-cigarettes into their smoking bans.

Health and life insurers have long required smokers to pay higher premiums than non-smokers, but they were limited in how much information they could gather about their customers. Now insurers are turning to data brokers to inform their coverage plans, and the more we codify our habits through hard data, the greater the risk that they could be turned against us. At minimum, it appears Juul’s forthcoming app would collect information about nicotine use, vaping habits, and, since the app is intended for smokers trying to switch to Juul, whether or not a person smokes cigarettes. All of that information would be highly valuable to insurers.

Idris Adjerid, an associate professor who studies healthcare technologies and the economics of privacy at Virginia Tech, echos concerns around employment discrimination and adds that health insurers could use the data to indirectly charge nicotine users higher premiums.

“It’s not always direct,” Adjerid says. “Those things often manifest in the form of discounts, like if you don’t do this behavior, you get this discount. There are also questions around coverage — can somebody be denied because this data makes them too high risk?”

“I think a responsible company should be seeking to protect its customers’ privacy by minimizing the data it collects and refusing to share it except for responsible uses, such as public health analyses,” Terry says.

Of course, there’s one simple way for Juulers to avoid that fate: Stick to a normal vape for as long as you can. Sometimes going dumb is the smarter choice.

Journalist covering tech, biz, internet culture, and women in tech, sometimes for Medium’s OneZero

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