Google knows more about some British citizens than previously thought.
A formerly undisclosed data-sharing agreement between Google and the UK's state-run National Health Service was revealed in a document published Friday by New Scientist. Under the agreement, vast swaths of data regarding 1.6 million patients at London hospitals are passed to Google-owned artificial intelligence company DeepMind as part of a research program.
The program focuses on designing a kidney analysis tool. Three London hospitals provided DeepMind with information about patients that also included data on HIV status, recorded overdoses and abortions. It also includes the results of some pathology and radiology tests.
The data can't be used to identify individual patients but raises questions about the privacy of medical and health records. The agreement between Google and the three London hospitals, all run by the Royal Free NHS Trust, will likely stoke a wider debate on the safe handling of medical and health data as technology's role in predicting and monitoring illness expands.
"The problem comes back to the details of process," Phil Booth, a coordinator at health privacy organization medConfidential, said in a statement. "It's possible to do this well, safely and without public concern; it's also possible to be creepy."
The NHS said the data was handled confidentially.
"No patient-identifiable data is shared with DeepMind," a spokeswoman for the Royal Free NHS Trust said. "The information is encrypted and only the Royal Free London has the key to that encryption."
She said all NHS patients can write to their physicians to opt out of having their data submitted to the Secondary User Service, which provides the historical data to DeepMind.
Google acknowledged DeepMind's relationship with the NHS in February, when it announced the AI company was building an app that would help medics monitor patients with kidney disease.
DeepMind is creating an app called Streams, which reviews blood tests to identify patients at risk of developing acute kidney injury.
DeepMind is only using kidney data in its program but received other health information from the hospitals because of the way the forms are structured.
The data can legally be shared with DeepMind in accordance with strict governance rules that also apply to 1,500 other third-party organizations that have access to NHS records.
DeepMind is forbidden from sharing data with any other part of Google and will be compelled to delete all data once the agreement comes to an end in 2017.