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Google goes all out on patient data

2019-11-15
Health people

Google are spreading their wings into patient data and privacy advocates are rightfully alarmed. The tech giant—with its mountains of personal user data—now wants to buy Fitbit for $2.2 billion. Fitbit has troves of intimate details of its users’ physical health, from heart rate to exercise routines to how much sleep they’re getting.


Google and Fitbit insist that Fitbit health data won’t be used for Google ads. But in 2012 and 2013, Google paid nearly $40 million in fines to settle charges that it had lied to users about how it would track their online behavior following the company’s purchase of the DoubleClick ad platform. Facebook, similarly, insisted it wouldn’t undermine WhatsApp’s privacy protections by integrating its data when it acquired the messaging app in 2014—and then paid a $122 million fine in Europe for doing just that a few years later.


The Wall Street Journal reported on Google’s Project Nightingale, a mostly secret deal with Ascension—one of the US’s largest nonprofit hospital networks. It has granted Google free access to tens of millions of complete, non-anonymized patient records, which it is using to train an AI platform that will be able to customize patient care. In return, Ascension, will get free use of the new software, which Google intends to sell to other health care providers.  


In the US, the hospital industry is concentrated and in some areas Ascension facilities may well be the only option for many patients. So if you don’t like their privacy policy, there’s little you can do besides forgo treatment.