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Google company’s access to NHS records raises privacy concerns

A data-sharing agreement between a Google-owned firm and the Royal Free NHS trust raises privacy concerns, despite assurances that Google cannot use the data

Google-owned artificial intelligence firm DeepMind has been given access to 1.6 million healthcare records, raising privacy concerns.

The London-based firm's data-sharing agreement with Royal Free NHS Trust – revealed by the New Scientist – includes patient names and medical histories for the past five years.

Google’s DeepMind will have access to data about the HIV status, drug overdoses and abortions of patients at the Barnet, Chase Farm and Royal Free hospitals.

The data includes hospital logs detailing the location and status of patients, who visits them and when, the results of certain pathology and radiology tests, critical care data and A&E information.

The data-sharing agreement is part of a partnership between DeepMind and NHS hospitals to develop software to alert medical staff to patients at risk of kidney failure.

Despite assurances that Google cannot use the data in any other part of its business; that the data is stored in the UK by a third party; and that all data will be deleted when the agreement expires at end of September 2017, the data-sharing agreement has raised concerns.

“One hopes that Google will respect patients' privacy, and not attempt to misuse the information,” said independent security advisor Graham Cluley.

“You may also want to cross your fingers that the systems are properly secured – as even leading technology companies like Google have been compromised by state-sponsored hackers with the intent of spying,” he wrote in a blog post.

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Privacy campaigners press for opt-in

A spokesperson for the Royal Free said that, although patients would not be aware that data was being made available, it would be encrypted and such an arrangement was standard practice, reported the Guardian.

“Our arrangement with DeepMind is the standard NHS information-sharing agreement set out by NHS England’s corporate information governance department and is the same as the other 1,500 agreements with third-party organisations that process NHS patient data,” the Royal Free said in a statement.

“As with all information-sharing agreements with non-NHS organisations, patients can opt out of any data-sharing system by contacting the trust’s data protection officer.”

But privacy advocates have argued that it would be better to have an opt-in approach, so that the data of only patients who have specifically consented to participate would be used in the study.

Sam Smith, of the health data privacy group MedConfidential, told the New Scientist: “What DeepMind is trying to do is build a generic algorithm that can do this for anything – anything you can do a test for. The big question is why they want it. This is a very rich dataset. If you are someone who went to the A&E department, why is your data in this?”

Focus on preventable deaths

Dominic King, a senior scientist at Google DeepMind, told the BBC that access to timely and relevant clinical data is essential for doctors and nurses looking for signs of patient deterioration.

“This work focuses on acute kidney injuries that contribute to 40,000 deaths a year in the UK, many of which are preventable,” King said.

“The kidney specialists who have led this work are confident that the alerts our system generates will transform outcomes for their patients. For us to generate these alerts it is necessary for us to look at a range of tests taken at different time intervals.”

Cluley said that, although Google probably could do some extraordinary work in analysing vast amounts of medical records in an attempt to provide better treatment for those who need it, it remains an advertising company that is ever-eager to gather as much personal information about people's lives, habits, relationships and health because of the huge opportunities for monetisation.

“There is a real need to tread carefully here,” he wrote.

According to Google, it has no commercial plans for DeepMind’s work with Royal Free and it is conducting the pilot study for free – but the New Scientist notes that the data DeepMind is getting access to is hugely valuable and could be mined for health insights in the next 17 months.

“Data mining is the name of the game in the burgeoning field of machine learning and artificial intelligence, and there’s no company in the world better at that than Google,” the New Scientist said.

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