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Google’s Collection of Millions of Americans’ Health Data Sparks Federal Probe

Tobias Hoonhout

Google’s collaboration with the nation’s second-largest health system to secretly gather data on the health information of more than 50 million Americans has triggered an official inquiry from lawmakers, the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday night.

“Project Nightingale,” which Google launched in partnership with Ascension, the health-care network based in St. Louis, has been working to shift personal health data from 40 physical data centers into Google’s cloud-computing system, without notifying patients or doctors.

According to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, hospitals may share patient data with business partners without notifying patients as long as that information is “used only to help the covered entity carry out its health-care functions.”

Now, the Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Health and Human Services “will seek to learn more information about this mass collection of individuals’ medical records to ensure that HIPAA protections were fully implemented,” Roger Severino, the office’s director, said.

Google cloud president Tariq Shaukat said on Monday that the company aimed to help “modernize Ascension’s infrastructure,” as well as to give Ascension staffers tools to communicate and build functions that the health system could use to improve care.

According to internal meetings and memos reviewed by the Journal, Google hopes to use artificial intelligence to suggest options for each patient, based on his personal health record. Conceptual images of the software in development show an interface similar to Google’s  search engine. Upon typing in a name, the drop-down menu will immediately feature other patients with similar names. A single click reveals intimate personal information, including medications, phone numbers, and even the patient’s temperature.

“We are happy to cooperate with any questions about the project,” Google said in a statement. “We believe Google’s work with Ascension adheres to industry-wide regulations (including HIPAA) regarding patient data, and comes with strict guidance on data privacy, security, and usage.”

Following initial coverage of the story, several lawmakers expressed concern about the program on Tuesday, including Senators Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.), Bill Cassidy (R., La.), Mark Warner (D., Va.), Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska), and Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.).

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