Google gets access to personal health data of millions of Americans
The tech giant’s “Project Nightingale” raises some serious privacy concerns
Technology has transformed our lives in more ways than one — how we communicate, work, educate or shop. The products & services offered by the Big techs have become an intrinsic part of our daily routine. While most of these services are free of charge or at least that’s what we are made to believe, most of us pay a hefty price for these freebies — handing over our personal data to these tech behemoths. But the scary part is what these tech companies do with our personal data.
The consumers have every right to question what they intend to do with this personal data, so that next time at least you make an informed decision, whether it’s worth it to hand over your personal information so callously. And considering all the recent revelations about Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple & Google, the resulting privacy concerns are well placed.
The expanding ecosystem of the big techs is another worrisome part. With their high profile acquisitions, these tech powerhouses have increased their already massive footprint. They have moved beyond their niches, expanding into other influential sectors like Financial services & Healthcare.
Most recently Google unveiled its plan to provide checking accounts to its users. Facebook has already been struggling with regulators regarding its digital payment system Libra launched in the summer, while Apple’s extreme interest to enter the healthcare space is evident from its internal healthcare services offerings like HealthKit, CareKit, and ResearchKit on its devices. Similarly, Amazon’s acquisition of the medication packaging and distribution company PillPack last year showed its intentions.
For now, though, Google’s Project Nightingale, which began in secrecy last year is all over the headlines. The search engine giant has signed a deal with its biggest Cloud Computing customer Ascension — the second-largest hospital system in the U.S. This would give Google access to personal medical data of up to 50 million Americans from one of the largest healthcare operators in the country, which runs 150 hospitals in 21 states, as reported by Wall Street Journal.
Once the expected data transfer is complete by next March all the data of the company’s patients including birth dates, lab results, diagnoses & hospitalization records, etc. would be uploaded to Google’s Cloud platform. Although there is no harm in using the Cloud services, which are increasingly becoming relevant to businesses, the eventual use of personal health data is the bigger concern.
The concern arises from the expected use of Google’s proprietary AI tools to analyze the data to diagnose or identify medical conditions. Google has been touting the development of its high-margin AI tools, which sets its cloud services apart from its biggest competitors, Microsoft Azure & Amazon Web Services (AWS).
While Google did not acknowledge the use of AI on the health data it is collecting, it said the two companies were in “early testing” on how to make better use of Ascension’s data. The official company line of Ascension stated that partnership is in compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) which safeguards medical information. The Ascension’s employees, however, have raised serious concerns on how the data will be collected and shared, both technologically and ethically.
Add to this, a recent investigation by Financial Times, that popular health websites like WebMD, Healthline, health insurance group Bupa were sharing private & personal medical data of their customers with big techs like Google, Amazon, Facebook & Oracle and also with smaller data brokers and advertising technology firms, like Scorecard and OpenX.
Of the 100 health websites analyzed by FT, 79% of them were found to be involved in the practice of tracking their customers via the use of third-party cookies without their prior consent or knowledge. The report mocks the big techs by including their disclaimers which strongly opposed any such wrongdoing.
These disclaimers usually don’t mean anything else other than a fine print, considering the dismal privacy record of the big techs. They provide no reassurance whatsoever. Time to pursue a personal data detox online?