In seeking regulatory approval for a new smoking device called iQOS, Philip Morris International is claiming the electronic gadget is less likely to cause disease than traditional cigarettes. But the iQOS holds another, less obvious advantage over regular smokes: the ability to harvest personal data about users' smoking habits.
The tobacco giant is already building a database of iQOS customers who register with the company. And it has developed a software application that could take things a step further.
The initiative, if allowed by regulators, could extract information about a user's smoking routine from the device and use it for marketing purposes, said a former project manager at the company who tested the software in Japan. That data would include the number of puffs and average consumption per day, said Shiro Masaoka, who worked at Philip Morris in Japan from 2012 to 2016.
Asked about Masaoka's comments, Philip Morris said the software in the device that controls temperature and duration of use "is not used for marketing purposes whatsoever."
A Canadian firm that specializes in reverse-engineering tech devices says the iQOS is equipped with two microcontroller chips, including one that, with modifications to the device, could support the storing of usage information that could then be transmitted back to Philip Morris. From the product description of the chips used, the data could include details like the number of puffs by a user and how many times a person smoked the device in a given day, according to Ottawa-based TechInsights Inc, which examined the iQOS' innards for Reuters.
The firm's inspection included the hardware and components; it did not test the functionality of the device's software. Reuters is publishing TechInsights' teardown report as part of a searchable repository, The Philip Morris Files, which includes internal company documents.
Presented with the TechInsights findings, Philip Morris said in a statement: "No data information from the device is linked to a specific consumer, only the device."
A patent filed by a Philip Morris subsidiary in 2009 suggests how communication with the smoker would work. It describes an iQOS-like device as having "an interface for establishing a communications link for uploading data to and downloading data from an Internet-enabled host."
Gregory Connolly, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston who has studied iQOS technology and patents, said Philip Morris' ability to gather user data could give the device remarkable power.
"What they're going to have is a mega database of how Americans smoke," he said. "Then they'll be able to reprogram the current puffing delivery pattern of the iQOS to one that may be more reinforcing and with a higher addiction potential."
Told about those comments, Philip Morris referred to remarks in January by its vice president for scientific and public communications, Moira Gilchrist.
"I can reassure that there's no technology in there that's intended to manipulate in any way what is delivered from iQOS," Gilchrist told a panel of scientific advisers for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The only time the company extracts data from the device, Philip Morris says, is when trying to figure out why there's been a malfunction.