Google confirms that it has been collecting personal health data on millions of patients

Google confirms that it has been collecting personal health data on millions of patients

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Google has been secretly gathering data of people across 21 US states as part of a joint effort with one of the largest health-care systems in the country, without the knowledge of the doctors or the patients.

The effort, a cooperation between the Catholic healthcare system Ascension, dubbed "Project Nightingale" was first flagged by the Wall Street Journal and later by the New York Times. It affects around 2,600 hospitals. The goal of the initiative is to design software that tailors individual patient care with the help of machine learning and AI (artificial intelligence).

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What kind of data does Google collect? Everything from names, dates of births, and immunizations to lab and scan results and hospitalization records. The data is then sent to Google's system which, in turn, offers suggestions regarding treatment, such as additional tests and a health care plan.

Concerns: Some Ascension employees are worried that Project Nightingale might be in violation of both ethical and technological rules as some Google and Alphabet Inc., Google's parent company, employees have access to the date that is being collected, according to internal documents. Privacy experts, however, said that under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, health care systems are allowed to share data with their business partners as long as it helps "the covered entity carry out its health care functions"— even if patients are unaware of it.

Ascension's response: “As the health-care environment continues to rapidly evolve, we must transform to better meet the needs and expectations of those we serve as well as our own caregivers and health-care providers. Doing that will require the programmatic integration of new care models delivered through the digital platforms, applications, and services that are part of the everyday experience of those we serve,” said Ascension executive vice president Eduardo Conrado.

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Google's response: The company confirmed the existence of Project Nightingale in a blog post, following the WSJ report, which came a year after the effort was launched.

“To be clear: under this arrangement, Ascension’s data cannot be used for any other purpose than for providing these services we’re offering under the agreement, and patient data cannot and will not be combined with any Google consumer data,” wrote Google Cloud president Tariq Shaukat.

This isn't the first time Google is facing scrutiny for data collecting and privacy protections for its users, including its recent $2.1 billion deal with fitness maker Fitbit Inc. that drew criticism from some lawmakers. Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) said the project would provide Google with “deep insights into Americans’ most sensitive information," but the companies insisted their efforts would be transparent.

Worth noting: Big tech companies such as Google, Apple, and Amazon have been attempting to make their way into the lucrative health care industry, with Project Nightingale seemingly pushing Google in the lead.

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