Google Bought Access to Millions of People’s Healthcare Data

With the launch of ‘Project Nightingale,’ Google now knows more about our bodies than just what we feverishly search on WebMD.
Katie Way
Brooklyn, US
Photo by Narin Sapaisarn / EyeEm via Getty Images

Google could probably clone me, at least virtually, if it was so inclined. The company has access to most of the writing I’ve done since graduating college and about four or five different email addresses’ worth of receipts, login instructions, half-baked networking attempts, and job applications. It’s got my credit card information, my address, and my phone number. It even knows how many times I’ve Googled “Panera Bread delivery” (to no avail)… All in all, intimate stuff! But now, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal, the tech giant is looking to solidify its grasp on all things data by partnering with healthcare providers to access patient data, all without notifying the individuals involved beforehand. And, as unlikely as it sounds, the company has publicly defended its actions on the basis of legality, since it hasn’t technically violated the HIPAA Privacy Rule.


Google partnered with Ascension, a Catholic nonprofit whose healthcare facilities constitute America’s second-largest health system, according to the Journal, on the data-sharing initiative. Ascension has given Google access to the “lab results, doctor diagnoses, and hospitalization records” of “tens of millions of patients,” all attached to identifying information like full names and birth dates. Called “Project Nightingale,” it’s ostensibly aimed at using artificial intelligence to develop“an omnibus search tool to aggregate disparate patient data and host it all in one place,” a name/purpose combination so wildly sinister that pointing it out almost feels redundant.

This isn’t Google’s first foray into the realm of healthcare: The company created a Google Health division in late 2018 and acquired FitBit earlier this month, probably as a means of data collection. According to CNBC, it has focused on combining Google’s “core expertise in search” with input from healthcare professionals to establish some kind of database “to make it easier for doctors to search medical records, and to improve the quality of health-related search results for consumers across Google and YouTube.” Although Google has already denied rumors that it will be using FitBit data for advertising purposes, the company makes money from its ability to serve people ads relevant to the data they give Google, including search terms, so it’s not hard to envision this medical data being leveraged in a similar fashion.

Integrating modern technology into healthcare isn’t new, and it isn’t inherently bad, either. Telemedicine hasn’t been a resounding success, but it also hasn’t been a dramatic failure. It’s kind of like the quinoa of healthcare options—not the best, exactly, but a perfectly serviceable option when it’s what’s most convenient. Advances in surgical technologies, as well as the usage of data and augmented and virtual reality in the diagnostic process, are all (kind of dry, sorry) examples of how technological advancements are changing medicine as we know it, although the AI leaders at IBM Watson have taken flack for severely “overpromising” when it comes to the capabilities of their developing systems. Still, these innovations are taking place against the backdrop of a for-profit healthcare system. The implementation of electronic health records has streamlined data sharing between healthcare providers and simplified the billing process for patients, but it’s also led to medical negligence by healthcare providers and hospital administrators who assumed digitization was synonymous with flawlessness, and allowed patients to slip through the cracks. And the sale of medical data, like the transfer from Ascension to Google, may assist in the research and development of brand-new treatments and medical technologies, but it’s also a definite moneymaker. All in all, it’s clear that patients should be wary of who is invested in care-taking and what they hope to gain in return.

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