Google secretly gathering health data of Americans: Report

The New York Times later wrote that "dozens of Google employees" may have access to sensitive patient data and some may have downloaded that data too.

Google secretly gathering health data of Americans: Report

San Francisco: Google is reportedly gathering health information of millions of US citizens -- without informing them or their doctors -- to design an Artificial Intelligence (AI)-driven software, the media reported.

According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, "Google is engaged with one of the US's largest health-care systems on a project to collect and crunch the detailed personal-health information of millions of people across 21 states" and at least 150 Google staffers may have access to the data.

St. Louis-based faith-based healthcare organisation Ascension is sharing lab results, diagnoses and hospitalisation records -- as well as health histories complete with patient names and dates of birth -- with Google, the report claimed.

"The initiative, code-named 'Project Nightingale,' appears to be the biggest effort yet by a Silicon Valley giant to gain a toehold in the health-care industry through the handling of patients medical data," the report said.

The crunching of health data is the next big frontier for tech giants as Apple to Amazon and Microsoft are aiming big to infuse data findings into their devices and solutions in the burgeoning healthcare space.

The New York Times later wrote that "dozens of Google employees" may have access to sensitive patient data and some may have downloaded that data too.

As part of "Project Nightingale", Ascension uploaded patient data to Google's Cloud servers.

In a blog post, Google tried to clarify its partnership with Ascension.

"All of Google's work with Ascension adheres to industry-wide regulations regarding patient data, and come with strict guidance on data privacy, security and usage," said Tariq Shaukat, President, Industry Products and Solutions, Google Cloud.

Google said it has a Business Associate Agreement (BAA) with Ascension, which governs access to Protected Health Information (PHI) for the purpose of helping providers support patient care.

"To be clear: under this arrangement, 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," said the company.

Ascension also issued a statement, saying it is working with Google to optimise the health and wellness of individuals and communities, and deliver a comprehensive portfolio of digital capabilities that enhance the experience of Ascension consumers, patients and clinical providers across the continuum of care.

"All work related to Ascension's engagement with Google is HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) compliant and underpinned by a robust data security and protection effort and adherence to Ascension's strict requirements for data handling," said the healthcare company.

According to Google, some of the solutions it is working on with Ascension are not yet in active clinical deployment, but rather are in early testing.

"This is one of the reasons we used a code name for the work -- in this case, Nightingale," it added.

However, neither Google nor Ascension directly replied to the WSJ report.

In 2017, Google partnered with the University of Chicago Medical Centre to develop machine learning tools capable of "accurately predicting medical events -- such as whether patients will be hospitalised, how long they will stay, and whether their health is deteriorating despite treatment for conditions such as urinary tract infections, pneumonia, or heart failure."