Tech giants like Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft are moving aggressively into healthcare, but Google could leapfrog them all thanks to a troubling secret project. According to the Wall Street Journal, Google has allegedly been gathering troughs of health data on millions of Americans spanning 21 different states since last year. Google has not sought approval from patients to collect this data, but the nature of its agreement with the heathcare provider reportedly makes everything nice and legal. It still feels plenty sketchy, though.
Like any notable endeavor that comes out of Mountain View, this one has its own unique moniker: Project Nightingale, presumably named after Florence Nightingale. Sometime last year, Google allegedly partnered with the second largest healthcare organization in the United States, Ascension. Since then, Google has ramped up efforts to gather various types of confidential patient documentation, including names, dates of birth, lab results, doctor diagnoses, hospitalization records, and other bits of data that could be used to complete health portfolios.
Although 150 Google employees are said to have access to this information on patients ranging into the tens of millions, none of these profiled individuals, nor their healthcare professionals, have been alerted to this data grab. According to Forbes, Google has essentially created a health-based search engine for Ascension, allowing "healthcare providers to see an 'overview page' about their patients." If deemed useful, this model could potentially be expanded to build a singular healthcare database that encompasses a wider range of providers. Today's news comes only weeks after Google declared its interest in the health field by purchasing Fitbit.
We've reach out to Google for comment on Project Nightingale, and we will update this story if we receive a response.
Following our request, Google issued an official statement explaining that its partnership with Ascension has centered around shifting Ascension’s infrastructure to the cloud, G Suite integration, and providing helpful tools to doctors and nurses. Google also promises that its treatment of patient data adheres to strict HIPAA privacy rules, meaning this information is effectively safeguarded from being disclosed to third parties beyond Ascension's cloud data system.
The Google/Ascension partnership was first announced in an earnings call in July 2019, where it was stated that, “Google Cloud’s AI and ML solutions are helping healthcare organizations like Ascension improve the healthcare experience and outcomes.”
You can read Google's full statement on the Google Cloud blog page here.
Following plenty of media coverage that scrutinized Google's partnership with Ascension, the Google Health team has released an official statement regarding Project Nightingale. In 700+ words that aim to justify Google's reason for taking on the project, the head of Google Health Dr. David Feinberg stresses the importance of data privacy:
As we noted in an earlier post, our work adheres to strict regulations on handling patient data, and our Business Associate Agreement with Ascension ensures their patient data cannot be used for any other purpose than for providing our services—this means it’s never used for advertising. We’ve also published a white paper around how customer data is encrypted and isolated in the cloud.
You can read Dr. Feinberg's statement in its entirety on The Keyword by Google.