UK Hospitals Are Feeding 1.6 Million Patients’ Health Records to Google’s AI

Google is getting real-time access to patient data at 3 London hospitals under a new pilot program.

Apr 30 2016, 7:00pm

DeepMind, the Google-owned A.I. famous for turning your photos into LSD-addled Lovecraftian nightmares, is being given real-time access to the medical information of more 1.6 million people in the UK, under a data sharing pilot program between Google and the UK's National Health Service (NHS) that was hinted at earlier this year.

The program, called Patient Rescue, provides the company with a stream of sensitive records from all patients of three London hospitals run by the Royal Free NHS Trust, according to a copy of the information sharing agreement obtained by New Scientist. That includes historical patient records from the past five years, as well as real-time data on hospital visits, test results, diagnoses, addictions, and more.

The scale of the sharing program was apparently misrepresented to the public, originally announced as an app to help hospitals monitor patients with kidney disease with real-time alerts and analytics. But since those patients don't have their own separate dataset, Google has argued it needs access to all patient data from the participating hospitals. The main idea is that by comparing patient data with millions of other cases, DeepMind could aid diagnostic decisions and predict diseases in their early stages.

Naturally, this doesn't sit well with anyone who is understandably leery of Google and the monopoly-like power they wield over the world's information. Aral Balkan, a software designer and privacy advocate called it "fucked up beyond belief" that the NHS would agree to "giving a corporation that farms people access to personal health records." It's currently unclear whether there is any way for patients of Royal Free hospitals to opt-out of the real-time data sharing.

The agreement says the data can only be retained until the project's end date in late September 2017. But it notably doesn't prevent Google from doing all kinds of analytics on that data in the meantime—which is probably why the company has so charitably provided its services to the NHS for free.

It's the first time Google has gained direct access to medical information under such a program, and speaks to the data behemoth's desire to establish a foothold in the health industry the same way it intends to do for transportation, city infrastructure, and pretty much everything else.