Google is absorbing a lot of health data and it’s totally legal

Technology giant Google has been concentrating on the healthcare field in recent years, and it seems that the search engine giant has been once again accumulating health data. Its $2.1 billion acquisition of Fitbit made have a commercial motivation, but more pressing has been the data that Google will obtain in the process.
Google health data
Google is ramping up its healthcare operation, but has been criticized for its data policies. Photo: Spiros Vathis via Flickr.

Healthcare data

Google has previously attempted to gain access to health data via healthcare organizations and government contracts, but now seems to have, at least partly, changed tack. The mega-corporation seems to have recognized that partnering with firms in the healthcare field could provide them with easy access to data.

And there is evidence of this process being expanded beyond the Fitbit purchase. The Wall Street Journal has published details of Project Nightingale; a partnership that Google has entered into with Ascension – the second-largest health system in the United States. The project will involve the sharing of health data, with tens of millions of largely unsuspecting patients potentially affected.

Google’s Cloud division will be responsible for Project Nightingale, and the partnership with Ascension is sure to be considered controversial. There are already massive concerns about Google’s attitude towards private data, while the fact that Google’s Cloud division as been involved with AI services for medical provides poses further ethical issues.

Google Fitbit acquisition
Google’s acquisition of Fitbit will be one of many healthcare link-ups in the years to come. Photo: Timo Newton-Syms via Flickr.

HIPAA legislation

Although Google has been reluctant to make the details too public at this juncture, it has responded to some of the criticism of the project by stating that it’s operating as a business associate of Ascension. This means that there are legal limitations to what Google can do with the data, due to the terms of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, more often referred to as HIPAA.

The HIPAA dictates that Google can use medical data from the Ascension partnership “only to help the covered entity carry out its healthcare functions.” And it seems that Google is therefore effectively doing work for free, with the intention of testing and then establishing a platform that can be sold to other healthcare providers.

While the partnership will undoubtedly attract criticism and suspicion, Dianne Bourque, a legal law specialist, told Wired that the provisions of HIPAA should be some comfort to those affected. “If you’re shocked that your entire medical record just went to a giant company like Google, it doesn’t make you feel better that it’s reasonable under HIPAA. But it is,” Bourque commented.

There are privacy issues related to healthcare data, despite Google’s reassurances. Photo: gdsteam via Flickr.

Anonymizing data

Under the operative legislation, Google would be required to anonymize all data before it could be used to develop machine learning models. But this won’t stop critics of Google’s practices from shining a light on its increasing desire to hoover up health data.

Nonetheless, as healthcare information becomes an increasingly fertile niche, Google is unlikely to alter its policy of pursuing partnerships with healthcare providers. Increasingly, the onus will be on the individual to ensure that his or her health data is kept as private as possible, and healthcare apps will undoubtedly come under this remit.

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