Update, November 12: Following the publication of the WSJ story, Google and Ascension both put out announcements of their collaboration. The companies state that their collaboration is entirely compliant to HIPAA and other regulations, and that the medical data will only be used for narrow purposes, and not combined with Google’s consumer data. Full details in this follow-up post.
Original post, November 11: According to a new bombshell report from The Wall Street Journal, Google has a secret division known as Project Nightingale that amasses private health data from millions of Americans across 21 states.
Project Nightingale’s data allegedly involves lab results, doctor diagnoses, hospitalization records, and more. The data is compiled into a complete health history that is connected to a patient’s name and date of birth.
Sources told The Wall Street Journal that Google’s development of this initiative began last year with a partnership with the St. Louis-based health system Ascension, the second-largest company of its kind in the United States. Ascension allegedly shares health data with Google without the approval of patients or doctors. The source affirms that some 150 Google employees have access to this data.
However shocking this might seem, it appears to be completely legal. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 allows hospitals to share patient data with third-party companies assuming that sharing is “only to help the covered entity carry out its health care functions.”
It’s no secret that Google has lofty ambitions about entering the health care industry. Its recent acquisition of Fitbit is but one example of this strategy.
In a statement to The Wall Street Journal, Google affirmed that Project Nightingale is fully compliant with federal health laws. Internal Google documents show that the company is using the data, in part, to create AI-powered software that will assist patients in altering their medical care.
The long-term goal, according to leaked Google documents, is to create a system that aggregates patient data into a one-stop-shop for health care providers. This system could then be sold by Google to other companies, such as partner Ascension. Allegedly, Google has so far developed Project Nightingale for free.