Along with giants like Apple and Facebook, Google is hungry for health data – aggressively hungry for it. Acquiring Fitbit is one way for Google to get data on our health lives, but there is a much easier and cheaper way to accomplish this – team up with healthcare providers.
According to Wired, Project Nightingale is a VERY under-the-radar partnership that Google has with Ascension. What is Ascension you ask? It's (only) the second-largest heatlh system in the United States. Supposedly beginning last year, the project includes sharing personal health data of millions and millions of unsuspecting patients. Google's Cloud division is doing most of the work, and they have been developing AI-based services for medical providers.
Google is on record stating it's a business associate of Ascension. In this association, Google can get loads of identifiable health information, albeit with some legal limitations. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, says patient records and other medical details can be used "only to help the covered entity carry out its healthcare functions." That means Google and Ascension are working hard on designing a health platform for Ascension that can suggest individualized treatment plans, tests and procedures.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Google is doing the work for free with the hopes of being able to use the testing as a platform that can be sold to other healthcare providers as well. Other than the Google Cloud team, members of Google Brain also have access to the project. They focus on AI applications.
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Under HIPAA, Google can legally use data acquired through their work with ascension. That's because the laws therein are written to enforce data protection AND act for the betterment of healthcare in general. Google's involvement can be seen as trying to improve healthcare quality, but then why didn't Ascension insist on giving each patient of theirs an ID number? That way, the patient data would remain anonymous to Google. The way HIPAA is written, Google can have bithdates, names and every other piece of data, it seems, that Ascension has stored away.
Google has already gotten into trouble legally over the use of anonymized data, to say nothing about totally clear personal data that is exact. Even if data breaches are accidental, Google doesn't have a very good track record when it comes to using data. Laws need to be updated, and fast, to ensure data is only used when it has to be. It comes as no surprise that Google et al. want to use data for every reason imaginable.