Privacy concerns heighten over Google’s collection of health data on millions of Americans

Google confirmed reports that it has been collecting health data on millions of Americans and defended what it called “standard practice” after coming under fire.

The technology giant came under scrutiny after it was reported by the Wall Street Journal on Monday that it had been working with Ascension, one of the largest healthcare services company in the country, to collect and analyze patient data.

(Video: YouTube/KPIX)

Doctors and patients were reportedly not informed that the information was being accessed and “at least 150 Google employees already have access to much of the data on tens of millions of patients,” according to the Journal.

The two companies announced the project in a press release soon after the report was published, confirming that the secret “Project Nightingale” was planned to provide better care for patients using the latest technology. Google’s deal with the non-profit company will provide the tech giant with health data such as “lab results, doctor diagnoses and hospitalization records, among other categories,” adding that it “amounts to a complete health history, including patient names and dates of birth,” according to the Journal.

According to The New York Times:

At least a few Ascension employees in the project have raised concerns that Google employees downloaded patient data, according to the internal documents. They have also raised concerns about whether all of the Google software involved in processing Ascension patient data complies with a federal privacy law. That law, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, restricts how doctors, health systems and their business associations may handle identifiable patient data.


Google’s Tariq Shaukat defended the arrangement which was previously reported  arrangement in a July  earnings call.

“Back in July, on our Q2 earnings call, we announced ‘Google Cloud’s AI and ML solutions are helping healthcare organizations like Ascension improve the healthcare experience and outcomes,'” Shaukat wrote in a blog post. “Our work with Ascension is exactly that—a business arrangement to help a provider with the latest technology, similar to the work we do with dozens of other healthcare providers.”

“These organizations, like Ascension, use Google to securely manage their patient data, under strict privacy and security standards,” he added. “They are the stewards of the data, and we provide services on their behalf.”

Privacy standards, like HIPAA – which allow hospitals to conditionally share patients’ medical data with business partners – are strictly enforced, the company asserted, adding that the rules of the agreement were “standard practice” and 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.”

But Google has paid multiple fines for previously violating privacy laws, creating another level of concern for those critical of the venture which gives the tech company access to “detailed personal-health information of millions of people across 21 states,” according to the Journal.

Fox Business host Stuart Varney admitted that he did not have a problem with the collaboration seeing as “there’s no such thing as privacy” anymore.

“Everybody’s got it so why shouldn’t they bring it all together and use artificial intelligence and machine learning to make better personal health care for me?” he asked his guest Andrew Napolitano on “Varney & Co.” Tuesday.

(Video: YouTube/Fox Business)

The Fox News senior judicial analyst explained that the relevant part of the privacy issue are the agreements.

“Those agreements say they will keep it private. Do you trust Google to keep this information private?” he asked. “Of course not. They’ve been fined hundreds of millions of dollars for failing to protect privacy.”

“What are you going to do? There’s nothing you can do,” Varney countered.

Napolitano suggested a class action lawsuit could be brought against the tech giant over the inadvertent or “intentional” release of private patient information.


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