The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that the tech giant partnered with Ascension, a non-profit and Catholic health systems company, on the program code-named “Project Nightingale.” According to the Journal, Google began its initiative with Ascension last year, and it involves everything from diagnoses, lab results, birth dates, patient names, and other personal health data—all of it reportedly handed over to Google without first notifying patients or doctors. The Journal said this amounts to data on millions of Americans spanning 21 states.
“By working in partnership with leading healthcare systems like Ascension, we hope to transform the delivery of healthcare through the power of the cloud, data analytics, machine learning, and modern productivity tools—ultimately improving outcomes, reducing costs, and saving lives,” Tariq Shaukat, president of Google Cloud, said in a statement.
Beyond the alarming reality that a tech company can collect data about people without their knowledge for its own uses, the Journal noted it’s legal under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). When reached for comment, representatives for both companies pointed Gizmodo to a press release about the relationship—which the Journal stated was published after its report—that states: “All work related to Ascension’s engagement with Google is HIPAA compliant and underpinned by a robust data security and protection effort and adherence to Ascension’s strict requirements for data handling.”
Still, the Journal report raises concerns about whether the data handling is indeed as secure as both companies appear to think it is. Citing a source familiar with the matter as well as related documents, the paper said at least 150 employees at Google have access to a significant portion of the health data Ascension handed over on millions of people.
Google hasn’t exactly proven itself to be infallible when it comes to protecting user data. Remember when Google+ users had their data exposed and Google did nothing to alert in order to shield its own ass? Or when a Google contractor leaked more than a thousand Assistant recordings, and the company defended itself by claiming that most of its audio snippets aren’t reviewed by humans? Not exactly the kind of stuff you want to read about a company that may have your medical history on hand.
In a deal signed last month, the internet giant was handed hospital records of thousands of patients in England.
New documents show the data will include medical history, diagnoses, treatment dates and ethnic origin.
The news has raised concerns about the privacy of the data, which could now be harvested and commercialised.
It comes almost a year after Google absorbed the London-based AI lab DeepMind Health, a leading health technology developer.
DeepMind was bought by Google’s parent company Alphabet for £400 million ($520m) in 2014 and up until November 2018 had maintained independence.
But as of this year DeepMind transferred control of its health division to the parent company in California.
DeepMind had contracts to process medical record from three NHS trusts covering nine hospitals in England to develop its Streams mobile application.
a data-sharing agreement between Google-owned artificial intelligence company DeepMind and the Royal Free NHS Trust – gives the clearest picture yet of what the company is doing and what sensitive data it now has access to.
The agreement gives DeepMind access to a wide range of healthcare data on the 1.6 million patients who pass through three London hospitals run by the Royal Free NHS Trust – Barnet, Chase Farm and the Royal Free – each year. This will include information about people who are HIV-positive, for instance, as well as details of drug overdoses and abortions. The agreement also includes access to patient data from the last five years.
“The data-sharing agreement gives Google access to information on millions of NHS patients”
DeepMind announced in February that it was working with the NHS, saying it was building an app called Streams to help hospital staff monitor patients with kidney disease. But the agreement suggests that it has plans for a lot more.
This is the first we’ve heard of DeepMind getting access to historical medical records, says Sam Smith, who runs health data privacy group MedConfidential. “This is not just about kidney function. They’re getting the full data.”
The agreement clearly states that Google cannot use the data in any other part of its business. The data itself will be stored in the UK by a third party contracted by Google, not in DeepMind’s offices. DeepMind is also obliged to delete its copy of the data when the agreement expires at the end of September 2017.
All data needed
Google says that since there is no separate dataset for people with kidney conditions, it needs access to all of the data in order to run Streams effectively. In a statement, the Royal Free NHS Trust says that it “provides DeepMind with NHS patient data in accordance with strict information governance rules and for the purpose of direct clinical care only.”