Google’s ‘Project Nightingale’–a de facto breach of 10 million health records, off a bridge too far?

Breaking News. Has this finally blown the lid off Google’s quest for data on everyone? This week’s uncovering, whistleblowing, and general backlash on Google’s agreement with Ascension Health, the largest non-profit health system in the US and the largest Catholic health system on the Planet Earth, revealed by the Wall Street Journal (paywalled) has put a bright light exactly where Google (and Apple, Facebook, and Amazon), do not want it.

Why do these giants want your health data? It’s all about where it can be used and sold. For instance, it can be used in research studies. It can be sold for use in EHR integration. But their services and predictive data is ‘where it’s at’. With enough accumulated data on both your health records and personal life (e.g. not enough exercise, food consumption), their AI and machine learning modeling can predict your health progression (or deterioration), along with probable diagnosis, outcomes, treatment options, and your cost curve. Advertising clicks and merchandising products (baby monitors, PERS, exercise equipment) are only the beginning–health systems and insurers are the main chance. In a worst-case and misuse scenario, the data modeling can make you look like a liability to an employer or an insurer, making you both unemployable and expensively/uninsurable in a private insurance system.

In Google’s latest, their Project Nightingale business associate agreement (BAA) with Ascension Health, permissible under HIPAA, allowed them apparently to access in the initial phase at least 10 million identified health records which were transmitted to Google without patient or physician consent or knowledge, including patient name, lab results, diagnoses, hospital records, patient names and dates of birth. This transfer and the Google agreement were announced by Ascension on 11 November. Ultimately, 50 million records are planned to be transferred from Ascension in 21 states. According to a whistleblower on the project quoted in The Guardian, there are real concerns about individuals handling identified data, the depth of the records, how it’s being handled, and how Google will be using the data. Ascension doesn’t seem to share that concern, stating that their goal is to “optimize 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” which is a bit of word salad that leads right to Google’s Cloud and G Suite capabilities.

This was enough to kick off an inquiry by Health and Human Services (HHS). A spokesperson confirmed to Healthcare Dive that “HHS’ Office of Civil Rights is opening an investigation into “Project Nightingale.” The agency “would like to learn more information about this mass collection of individuals’ medical records with respect to the implications for patient privacy under HIPAA,” OCR Director Roger Severino said in an emailed statement.”

Project Nightingale cannot help but aggravate existing antitrust concerns by Congress and state attorneys general on these companies and their safeguards on privacy. An example is the pushback around Google’s $2.1 bn acquisition of Fitbit, which one observer dubbed ‘extraordinary’ given Fitbit’s recent business challenges, and data analytics company Looker. DOJ’s antitrust division has been looking into how Google’s personalized advertising transactions work and increasingly there are calls from both ends of the US political spectrum to ‘break them up.’ Yahoo News

Google and Ascension Health may very well be the ‘bridge too far’ that curbs the relentless and largely hidden appetite for personal information by Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook that is making their very consumers very, very nervous. Transparency, which seems to be a theme in many of these articles, isn’t a solution. Scrutiny, oversight with teeth, and restrictions are.

Also STAT News , The Verge on Google’s real ambitions in healthcare, and a tart take on Google’s recent lack of success with acquisitions in ZDNet, ‘Why everything Google touches turns to garbage’. Healthcare IT News tries to be reassuring, but the devil may be in Google’s tools not being compliant with HIPAA standards.  Further down in the article, Readers will see that HIPAA states that the agreement covers access to the PHI of the covered entity (Ascension) only to have it carry out its healthcare functions, not for the business associate’s (Google’s) independent use or purposes. 

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