A deal between Google and Ascension, "America's second largest health care system, codenamed "Project Nightingale,"" has caused federal investigators to step in and start an investigation due to possible personal data breaches. The story, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, states that the search giant may be violating healthcare privacy laws. Under the code name "Project Nightingale," Google and Ascension partnered to integrate Ascensions data into Google's services such as G Suite and Google Cloud.
The New York Times further corroborates the initial report. The partnership is supposed to analyze patient data and create new perceptions into how to improve patient care better. By way of artificial intelligence and machine learning, Google hopes to design better software that meets the needs of medical providers such as Ascension.
Ascension and its data
St. Louise-based Ascension has over 2,600 facilities spread out in 22 different states. The data Ascension have shared with Google include lab results, hospitalization records, diagnoses by doctors, patient names, and dates of birth. According to the report, neither patients nor doctors were notified of this data being shared to Google. Additionally, at least 150 Google employees have access to the medical data, which are protected by HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996).
Google released a blog post later on with an FAQ, clarifying the partnership between the two companies. In its posts, Google claims that the data remain firmly in the hands of Ascension and are not being distributed to any other entity that Google deals with. It also defends that Google employees who have access to Ascensions' data were approved by Ascension themselves.
Google and its history with medical data
The Department of Health and Human Services' Office for Civil Rights started the investigation on Tuesday, seeking to learn more about the deal and to make sure that HIPAA and other privacy laws are followed.
This is not the first time Google has been in the headlights relating to healthcare records. In 2017, Google partnered with the University of Chicago Medical Center to develop machine learning tools similar to the ones being developed under the Google–Ascension partnership.
Tech Giants try to get into healthcare
Other tech giants are also trying to enter the healthcare market with its lucrative $2.9 trillion market in the US alone. Amazon partnered up with Berkshire Hathaway and JP Morgan in 2018 to form a healthcare company for its employees. The e-Commerce giant also purchased startup Pillpack. It also plans to sell and develop software that will easily read medical records.
Apple's attempts to get into the market are tightly integrated with its devices. In 2018, Apple updated their Apple Health app to display medical records from 39 different health systems. Their Apple Watches also pack an electrocardiogram, an advanced method in monitoring heart rate and health. It also opened its own on-site clinic for its employees that are speculated to be a testbed for future healthcare-related software. The tech giant has also partnered with the US Department of Veteran Affairs to provide veterans with electronic access to their medical records on their iPhones.