Alphabet Still Needs To Answer A Big Question About Its Covid-19 Site

Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichai (Photo: Getty)

By now, you’ve probably heard about Verily, the strangely named Alphabet subsidiary that’s in charge of the planned “coronavirus testing website” endorsed by Donald Trump. Now that the company has launched the first round of its proposed coronavirus program in the Bay Area, there are a few specifics about the program that are putting some of us on edge.

Verily’s covid-19 pilot program, as of right now, is little more than a screening test that asks users about their basic symptoms. If the respondent is what the company is looking for, they’ll be matched up with a local clinic for proper testing. Despite the fact that Verily’s only offering this service in two California counties, it hit patient capacity almost immediately, potentially shutting out a lot of people anxious about their own symptoms.

There are other reasons that Verily isn’t inspiring confidence in nervous patients. Some factors, like the need to sign up with a Google account just to access this potentially life-saving care, have rightfully been lampooned. Less clear is how the pilot program plays into Google’s bigger plans to profit off of the healthcare industry—an effort that includes partnerships with some of pharma’s biggest players.

The big question here for us—and for others in the tech-sceptic space—was whether data collected through Verily’s covid-19 website would ever be used for commercial purposes. Despite a lengthy FAQ and responses to our questions, the answer remains unclear.

Verily and Project Baseline—Verily’s platform that allows people “to contribute to the map of human health and participate in clinical research,” which is being used for the covid-19 study—are nothing new, with the programs first popping up in 2015 and 2017, respectively. Back then, Baseline was introduced as an “ambitious effort to map human health,” which came to exist as a collaborative effort between Verily and Stanford University. The program was expecting to enroll roughly 10,000 people over a multi-year study on “what it means to be healthy.”

At the time, Project Baseline co-lead Rebecca McCue mentioned that participants in the health-mapping effort would “get an extensive battery of tests,” including, but not limited to: “basic medical history and vitals, electrocardiogram, ankle-brachial index, some physical performance testing, cognitive testing, eye exam, echocardiogram and stress echocardiogram, X-ray, coronary artery scan, audiometry.” In short, every basic medical test that could ostensibly be done in an office visit or two.

As Stanford said at the time, “the intention is to make data available to anyone with an institutional review board-approved research study in accordance with guidelines established by a committee set up to handle such requests,” adding that “it will be a tremendous resource for the whole global community.”

Project Baseline is also evidently a great resource for Big Pharma. Last year, Verily announced that these players would be an official part of Baseline to “increase the number of clinical research participants,” and get the company closer to its 10,000-participant goal.

Well before it got involved with the covid-19 outbreak, assured the public that data collected as a part of Baseline is strictly confidential to the drugmaker involved in each case, a representative from Sanofi, one of the pharma giants partnering in the initiative, was quoted saying that “Every experience from Sanofi will be shared with the others and conversely. We can help Verily grow the platform and improve it—this is the intent of the collaboration.”

Slide from a 2017 Google pitch deck describing its healthcare-specific cloud. Link here. (Screenshot: Gizmodo)

In other words, when Verily quizzes people on whether they have dermatitis, sleep apnea, or heart disease, there’s no guarantee that the pharmaceutical companies tied to each study will keep your data quiet. (As for Baseline’s covid-19 research, it doesn’t appear as though that study currently has Big Pharma backing.)

To be clear, Verily mentions that it won’t necessarily be keeping this data quiet either. In its privacy policy, the company explains that the personally identifiable information—or PII—that’s turned over to Project Baseline can legally be used for “commercial product research and development,” and that this data might be used as part of a larger, “de-identified data set” that sounds suspiciously similar to the thousands-wide sample Verily announced it was creating a few years back.

When Gizmodo asked Verily whether data—personal or otherwise—being given by the covid-19 study’s participants would be shared with any of the major partners currently partnering with Baseline, a representative told us that the company “will not use an individual’s data for research purposes without the individual’s permission beyond the purposes of the Baseline COVID-19 Program.”

“The data collected as part of the test may be used by Verily, the clinical laboratory performing the testing, and public health authorities such as the California Department of Public Health,” they added. “These public health officials may use this information to inform public health actions to help protect our community.”

Aside from the obvious ambiguity surrounding what “used by Verily” even means, the company’s response left a lot of wiggle room for interpretation. So we followed up with a list of questions to try to get specifics about what the company might do with your covid-19 data and what terms like “permission” mean—a word some find rather suspect—in this context.

When asked why Verily would want any data pertaining to covid-19 to begin with—and whether the company was planning any commercial uses for this specific dataset, a spokesperson said: “The information we are collecting for this program includes basic contact and scheduling information, and will be used for limited purposes to support testing of individuals. Verily personnel and volunteers who need to contact individuals regarding testing will have access to such data only for these purposes.”

Other data Verily can access is “signed COVID-19 authorization forms, and screener questionnaire answers, and may receive test results from the physical testing site, health care professionals, and/or clinical laboratories, in order to communicate test results back to individuals.”

The spokesperson added that the services Verily is providing related to the covid-19 study “inherently require the limited and responsible sharing of information with other groups,” including “companies that are performing the testing onsite or laboratories that are running the test.”

We’re still a bit fuzzy on what the whole “permission” thing means, but Verily assured us that “[a]uthorization is required to collect, use and share” people’s covid-19 data, and that “Verily will not use an individual’s data for research purposes without the individual’s permission beyond the purposes of the Baseline COVID-19 Program”—although the California government officials Verily shares data with “may use this information to inform public health actions to help protect our community.”

Verily’s responses excluded assurances that at least some of the covid-19 data it collects would not be used for commercial purposes. And remember, Project Baseline’s privacy policy explicitly leaves open the right to use it for creating commercial products.

The other companies publicly affiliated with Project Baseline—Alphabet, Otsuka, Pfizer, Sanofi, nor Project Baseline itself—have so far not responded to Gizmodo’s request for comment about whether the data gleaned from the coronavirus study would be shared between them.

It’s worth noting that the bulk of the data collected through Project Baseline could be used to, say, manufacture new, lifesaving drugs, but it’s possible it could also be used to generate profit through other means. While Verily states in plain black and white that “Google will not sell your information for advertising,” it’s worth noting that Salesforce—one of the most beloved partners in healthcare-related marketing—is one of the partners that might be getting some of the data from Verily’s coronavirus testing. While the Baseline project opens up a potential patient to being recruited for other clinical trials, Salesforce may open them up to targeting with new insurance plans, medications, and more.

Ultimately, all that ties back to why Alphabet launched Verily in the first place: for profit. In a leaked Google pitch deck from 2017, the company explained how health data from Verily’s end is only one part of the full scope of what they collect on patients, from health-related apps to wearables, to information provided by health insurance providers. And with coronavirus panic reaching a fever pitch, there are going to be a lot more people clamoring to be a part of this system.

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