Blizzard bribes female employees to track their sex, pregnancy, and moods

    
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Big Brother was so 1984. Now in 2019, it’s all about Big Blizzard.

Read this report over at Games Industry based on a new WAPO article and tell us if it doesn’t set off all kinds of alarms in your head. It turns out that Activision Blizzard is in the business of being as intrusive as possible in its employee’s lives for the purpose of keeping health costs down and increasing productivity.

The company — and we are not making this up — bribes its female employees with gift cards to install and use Ovia, an app that tracks their reproductive activity. And yes, this includes when they have sex, details about their pregnancy, moods, and even “the appearance of their cervical fluid.” The company then pays Ovia for “anonymized, aggregated” data covering users under its roof. This is only part of an ongoing trend of ways that Activision Blizzard is attempting to track the health of its employees.

But Activision Blizzard VP of Global Benefits Milt Ezzard says that everyone’s cool with it: “Each time we introduced something, there was a bit of an outcry: ‘You’re prying into our lives.’ But we slowly increased the sensitivity of stuff, and eventually people understood it’s all voluntary, there’s no gun to your head, and we’re going to reward you if you choose to do it.”

Truly, Ezzard is a font of genuine concern… for the bottom line: “I want them to have a healthy baby because it’s great for our business experience. Rather than having a baby who’s in the neonatal ICU, where she’s not able to focus much on work.”

Of course, employees who engage in this program have another issue to consider, which is the possibility that their information might get hacked from Ovia or sold without permission — something that occurred with similar apps Flo and Glow over the past year.

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BigAngry

What in the entire crap* is this horsescrewery*? UGH. Welcome to late-stage capitalism, where there are no rules and privacy doesn’t matter.

Also, Bree, you’re doing amazing things in this comment section, and you deserve recognition for keeping it under control.

*Voluntarily censored because it’s a video game news site, and dangit, I don’t feel comfortable swearing here right now.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

I keep coming back to this topic because I can’t understand how this app saves Blizzard money.

Ovia appears to be a third-party data aggregator. Essentially, they collect that data and sell a scrubbed version of it back to Blizzard. I suspect they also sell varying versions of their data (aggregating all user data) to sectors of the health industry looking for trends they can cash in on or advertising agencies for similar reasons.

But back to Blizzard. There’s some pretty good data that wellness programs lower health insurance costs. You know this is true because employers who have wellness programs get rate breaks based on employee participation. Awareness helps reduce costs.

But so does pro-active care. Kaiser is an extremely large, staff-model health care provider based primarily in the Western U.S., which does extensive research on issues related to medical care delivery. (It began as an in-house medical plan for Kaiser Steel employees in the 1940s, hence the name.) If you have lady parts, Kaiser will remind you to come in for your mammogram and annual check up. They’ll be polite at first, but if you don’t make an appointment, they start calling and texting and informing you they’ve made appointments for you. They want you to come in and will bug you until you do. They aren’t doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, but because preventative care reduces the cost of providing health care through early detection.

What exactly is Blizzard going to do about a distressed pregnancy? Why, exactly nothing. Nothing different from what they would do without the app. Having the app doesn’t make the pregnancy any less expensive for them, the time the employee is on leave any shorter, or the medical costs for care any less.

The way it could save them money is to provide data that would allow them to carefully design their medical plan and leave policies to provide as little benefit as possible for the most expensive “female” health problems.

So, privacy issues aside, women are sharing intimate details with their employer who then uses it to screw them over.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

This is quite right. Employers are always biased against women. Nothing irked the partners at my law firm quite so much as having a new associate become pregnant. In most businesses, women get paid 20-30% less than men and generally work more hours than their male colleagues and are held to a different, far higher standard, are given less room to make mistakes and receive harsher criticism.

There’s something rather absurd about the whole concept of Ovia. Try giving women unbiased healthcare. Try understanding how the vast healthcare system, run primarily by men, completely fails to keep women healthy simply because they are women.

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wratts

So the behavior modification angle is obvious, if they can improve health choices then they’ll save on healthcare expenses down the road. Since they’re the insurer there’s the direct benefit angle.

My guess as someone who knows a fair amount about insurance and corporate finance, is that there’s also a cash management angle in calculating their reserves. See, a standard insurance company manages their insurance side on a claims-premium ratio, typically targeting 80-85% of premium taken in paid out as claims.

A self-insured corporate like Blizzard isn’t taking in premium (aside from the employee contribution piece), so what they do is lock down a block of cash on a quarterly basis into a reserve. This lets them avoid any big expense hits in a given period that skew their numbers, investors like predictability. The problem is, that reserve is always off, so each quarter you’re either scrambling to pull extra cash out of operations to cover the expense, or almost as bad you’ve held too much in reserve that could have been used elsewhere in the organization and are incurring what they call carrying costs (effectively what the accountants think that money could have earned if you hadn’t had it locked down, and/or the finance charges on that excess reserve).

My guess is that someone made the case that a lot of their swings in healthcare costs came from pregnancy or complex pregnancies, and that if they could get better insight into their risk they could better size their reserve pool. Ovia, depending on their maturity, may have even made that pitch and may have offered the product either for free to a sample of users, or priced it as a benefits-funded model where Ovia actually earns from any savings that Blizzard realizes in their reserve management.

Either way, the net outlay to Blizzard is probably negligible, aside from the executive attention and PR hit this is giving them.

Bree Royce
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Bree Royce

I think you have it mostly right, except that Ovia isn’t going to improve anybody’s health: It gives Blizzard access to medical predictions for the purposes you outline, which it could get no other way.

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wratts

I’d be interested to see if Ovia has any data on behavior changes they can infer. I think you’re showing a bias that because you didn’t need a tool in your pregnancy and don’t see the value that no one would.

Things like the fluid monitoring may well have direct value, similar to devices that monitor blood sugar for diabetics. Access to a doctor isn’t always practical, and I’ve never seen an adverse effect from having too much data available

Bree Royce
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Bree Royce

Again, based on the inputs Ovia actually has, it can’t do anything a doctor and decades of vetted research can’t already do, except disclose bulk information to people who shouldn’t have access to it. Access to obgyn services when you work for a company like Blizzard borders on excessive, and claims like “never seen an adverse effect from having too much data available” are literally absurd given the state of modern obstetric care. No doctor would make that claim. The fact that you’d even say this makes me realize you are simply not informed on women’s health issues, which, yeah, most people aren’t until they have to be.

Your assumption about my pregnancies is both wrong and extremely rude.

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wratts

Didn’t mean to be rude. But, I am curious how too much and too regular biometric data is ever a bad thing. That’s a new one if true

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traja

It increases the amount of false positives as well as finding conditions that require treatment. This leads to increased costs and more harmful affects from treatment for patients that might not have even needed to be treated.

For example if doctors were to perform a prostate biopsy on every single adult male. You might think that would be really good for catching early prostate cancer. In reality it would also catch enormous amounts of incidents of cancer cells that never would have manifested into a treatable condition. But since you biopsied them you can’t ignore them and costs would skyrocket.

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wratts

Biopsy is an invasive surgical procedure. Is collecting cervical fluid? You’re reaching

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traja

I intentionally left out the potential side effects of the procedure itself and only focused on the information gathered from it.

You are desperate.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

Ovia isn’t going to improve anybody’s health

Exactly. “Saving money” does not translate to either better healthcare or better health for their women employees–unless they make the same connection Kaiser has with regards to preventative care and encourage employees to take care of themselves.

A lot of times taking better care of themselves means taking leave. Workplace attitude matters and managers are notorious for pressuring employees to ignore medical advice in favor of earning brownie points with them. Brownie points are useless when a critical health situation arises.

Looking only at data to make decisions is always very popular with numbers folks because the messy business of the reality of people can’t be wrangled neatly into a spreadsheet, but has far more impact on outcomes that any data point.

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Frank White

It’s not something I would feel cool about doing if it were my company and I was in charge, but as with so many of these kinds of knee-jerk “public outrages,” we put all the onus on the evil corporation or organization and completely absolve all the dimwits who willingly submit to these kinds of things of all responsibility for their own actions. At what point do people have to grow up and share some of the responsibility for their own choices?

Bree Royce
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Bree Royce

No we don’t. You can point out to people they need to protect their own privacy and unionize to fight against corporate abuses AND you can call out corporations abusing privacy and workers. You can do more than one thing. It’s what WAPO did, and it’s what the commenters did too.

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Frank White

I don’t disagree with that, but most of the coverage I’ve seen has been MUCH more about calling out EA than encouraging people to maybe not be so shallow as to sell out their privacy for what amounts to trinkets. I can simultaneously disdain those abusing corporations and the people who willingly submit themselves to said abuse.

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Frank White

Eh, meant Blizzard, of course. Had EA on the mind because I just watched one of Jim Sterling’s other videos. And I sometimes get my evil corporations mixed up. ;)

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traja

Calling out careless or ignorant practices when it comes to your personal privacy is of course a good thing as well. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be very effective seeing that it has been attempted for many years now and people keep falling for this type of thing more and more.

Calling out companies could work out better as companies have a direct financial incentive to avoid bad PR or the possibility of legislation. Although perhaps not with Activision Blizzard. They may be too used to being the bad guys.

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Frank White

I don’t necessarily disagree with that either, except to the extent that I think you can protect others from their own stupidity only so much. What I disagree with is people (in general) covering such topics and barely or not at all even mentioning the culpability of the people willingly lining up for such practices, like the proverbial lambs to the slaughter. It might be a little cynical of me, but I believe that to some extent the women participating in this (with no overt or implied coercion that I’m aware of) deserve whatever happens to them as a result. The only real excuse many of these people have is that they’re ignorant of the possible consequences, and at this point in their lives, at their age, I’m not sure how that’s possible – OR many of them are aware of the possible consequences and just don’t care.

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traja

In case of women who on their own decide to begin using these apps I agree. The company is still incredibly shady for collecting private health data to be sold but the women really should know better as well.

That is not the case here though. This is their employer recommending that they start doing this. The people in the position to decide if these women have a job to go to. That is a huge deal and it is entirely rational to feel coerced. This type of recommendation should come from your doctor and not from your employer.

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Frank White

This seems to be mostly supposition on your part. Nothing I’ve read suggests there was any kind of coercion, overt or implied. Your argument seems to basically be,”The company offered x to women for y, and because the company offered it, those women concluded there would be negative consequences for not accepting, and thus they accepted.”

While I suppose it can’t be ruled out that some relative few women felt coerced, it’s probably more likely that most of the women involved just didn’t see it as being a big deal and wanted their dollar a day or whatever it works out to. Again, not saying I think this is purely some benevolent move on the part of Blizzard – they’ve already admitted it saves them approx. $1,200 per employee per year – but the issue is probably more one of people accepting these kinds of privacy violations as normal and just part of life than it is one of people being scared of losing their jobs. Probably partly a generational thing, too. Those of us who didn’t spend our early childhoods almost entirely in an online world probably find this kind of thing more abhorrent than young 20-something’s, in general.

smuggler-in-a-yt
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smuggler-in-a-yt

That is some next level black mirror stuff right there.

Do they ask the equivalent of their Male employees?

What’s next? Gotta request a company permit?

“We were so happy when the promotion came through. It meant we could finally file a BZ-Preggers-001 form. Should hear back within 90 days. So exciting!”

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Nicholas

I apologize if I missed this in the comments, but…

In what way does this actually benefit the employee other than give them $30 extra a month in one of California’s most expensive cities? It would be illegal if Blizzard required it, but it is OK because it is opt-in? There is really no other way then taking this as sexist and discriminatory.

What happened to you Blizzard. You used to be cool.

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BalsBigBrother

Just going to drop in a story that I saw on the BBC news website today:

“Pregnancy club Bounty UK has been given a £400,000 fine for illegally sharing the personal information of more than 14 million people.

Bounty compiled personal data but did not tell people that it was shared with 39 other organisations, said the ICO.

Bounty gathered information from apps, its website, cards in merchandise packs and from new mothers in hospital.”

Source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-47908222

Ririrawr
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Ririrawr

i’ve read both sides and while there is merit to an extent, i am still appalled

should the company be concerned about employee health? yes
is it okay for the company to allow collection of this data? NO
is it okay for a company to recommend/provide benefits to employee for a favored medical practice/hospital/facility? yes
should the company raise health awareness among employees? yes
should the health awareness campaign coerce employees to be part of a study? no

provide better health care by tying up with actual medical institutions/professionals instead of “medical study” and general data collection (regardless of premise) shenanigans

for those unaware business environments react very differently to someone, based on their gender, refusing to participate, even if it is “voluntary”
as if women weren’t already being targeted and coerced to conform in some way already

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Chris J McClure

Get to work on diablo 4

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Armsman

Why? Don’t you have a cell phone? (What? Too soon?) ;)

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Neurotic

Hmm.

Random MMO fan
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Random MMO fan

It doesn’t set any kind of alarms for me as long as the participation is voluntary.