Dr. Google: Project Nightingale gave Google access to millions of medical records

January 9, 2020

2 min read

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What's going on here?

Google’s partnership with Ascension, a major US hospital network, has been revealed by one of its team members.

What does this mean?

Dubbed Project Nightingale, the initiative offers Google access to the medical records of Ascension`s patients, without their knowledge. The data is kept in Google’s cloud servers and it is used to create AI tools that will help Ascension better analyse the date and provide more accurate diagnostics. The data includes full patient information as well as notes about patient medical issues, test results and medications.

At the moment, a federal inquiry has been opened by regulators to ascertain if the collection of data complies with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 or HIPAA. Both Google and Ascension allege that no law has been breached.

What's the big picture effect?

There are two main points that the story highlights. First of all, it raises obvious privacy concerns. Health care data is in itself extremely sensitive and indicative of a person`s intimate details. Gathering such data without the patient`s approval is problematic for multiple reasons. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, the primary aim of the project is the improvement of diagnosis and to build effective AI tools. The issues arise when we consider the prospect of Google selling the data of unaware patients to third parties. Taking into account the plethora of data Google already possess on its users, the addition of medical records would only allow the companies to better profile individuals- a prospect that is concerning and which supports a case for tighter regulations. 

From another point of view, the project is a clear indication of the new area where the competition between big tech companies will be felt: medical technology. The partnership can be viewed as a strategic movement as both Apple and Amazon have taken steps in breaking into the healthcare industry. In fact, Apple has a similar partnership, albeit at a much smaller scale, with the hospitals chain Mount Sinai, whilst Amazon has announced plans to sell software that will read medical records. Does it sound familiar? 

The healthcare industry is an attractive target for these companies: the consumer numbers will be astronomical as health care is ubiquitously needed and the opportunities to sell both software and hardware will be hard to miss in an industry that is yet to catch up with the modern trends. Analysts from Morgan Stanley have concluded that the opportunities in the medical sector for big tech companies( in particular Apple) range from $15 billion is $313 billion in revenue by 2027. 

As such, it must be concluded that Project Nightingale is just the beginning. Regulators, as well as patients, should keep a close eye on future developments in data mining and AI tools coming from the technology giants.

Report written by Bogdan Ciacli

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