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In 2019, Google embarked on a mysterious-sounding venture.
Called Project Nightingale and carried out in secret, the tech giant teamed up with St. Louis-based Ascension, one of the largest private health-care companies in the country. Google was granted complete access to 50 million patients’ names, lab results, diagnoses and hospitalization records, as well as their home addresses and places of employment. Even more worryingly, at no time did Ascension or Google make an attempt to inform the patients or ask for their consent.
Despite patient privacy concerns, this partnership has only grown with Google boosting its electronic health-record search tool, likely resulting in the accumulation of even more patient data.
Now, hungry for even more medical data, Google has signed a multiyear deal with HCA, an American for-profit operator of medical facilities with 2,000 health-care sites across 21 different states. The agreement will give Google access to millions more patient records — enabling its advertisers to specifically target even victims of sexual abuse as well as those struggling with severe eating disorders.
Google has said it will use the sensitive data to develop health-care algorithms that it could hand off to HCA to test on its own. “We want to push the boundaries of what the clinician can do in real time with data,” Chris Sakalosky, managing director of healthcare and life sciences at Google Cloud, told The Wall Street Journal.
But the recent HCA deal is almost a carbon copy of the one struck with Ascension — except it’s even bigger. While Ascension has 165,000 employees and 151 hospitals, HCA boasts 280,000 staff and 186 hospitals. Considering Google earns more than 80 percent of its revenue from targeted ads, the monetization of medical records is just another step in its inexorable march toward data domination.
Yet again, one of the wealthiest companies in the world has gained access to highly personal medical data without the consent of patients. Executives at Google claim to care about your privacy, but the reality paints a very different picture.
According to a Consumer Watchdog report, Google collects information without people’s knowledge or consent. And the company currently faces a suit in California, which claims it collects and breaks data into categories like sexuality, ethnicity, religion, health conditions, etc., which are then “broadcast to hundreds of bidders,” with the highest bidder “winning the auction.”
The accumulation of data pays handsomely: Google’s profits more than doubled last quarter.
Experts are now sounding alarm bells about the new HCA venture. The idea of Google selling patients’ data is not beyond the realm of possibility, argues Arthur Kaplan, professor of ethics at NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine. After all, this is the very same company that, just a few years ago, removed the “don’t be evil” clause from its code of conduct.
Also, if Google is going to use highly sensitive data to generate profits, shouldn’t the affected people at least receive proper compensation?
Last year, researchers at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management asked Americans if they were willing to share their health data with Big Tech companies. Unsurprisingly, 90 percent of respondents said no.
How much, they asked, was the average person willing to accept in exchange for their data? The answer was $100,000. Multiply that figure by 50 million (the number of peoples’ records accessed in 2019) and you get $5 trillion. Enough to end the $1-trillion-worth Google as we know it, five times over.
Sadly, the idea of each patient being compensated doesn’t seem likely. So what, if anything, can be done?
According to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), patients have a say in how their health information is handled. If a patient requests that their information not be shared with third parties without their consent, then, according to HIPAA guidelines, this request, under law, must be respected.
If you happen to be a HCA patient and are concerned by what you have read, the company’s ethics line number is 1-800-455-1996. Why not give a call and make sure that your data is not being abused? You might not receive any compensation, but you most certainly deserve to have your questions answered.
John Mac Ghlionn is a researcher and essayist. His work has been published by The South China Morning Post, Sydney Morning Herald, and Townhall. Twitter: @ghlionn
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