Google has tapped a partnership with a prominent healthcare services company to advance its healthcare software services offerings. But a new report alleges the data being used for the project comes from the health records of tens of millions of people who have no idea their data is being used by Google for this purpose.
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, 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 arse? 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.
At the very least this seems another massive ethical oversight on the part of Google and Ascension, considering most people who visit the doctor expect what happens there to remain between them and their practicing physician. At worst, it has the potential to be a massive privacy risk for any number of individuals whose data is accessible to dozens of employees at the company. Let’s hope it’s not the latter.