Unholy Alliance

The Wall Street Journal and other news sources reported last week that Google and Ascension Health, a Catholic organization which is one of the nation’s largest non-profit health systems, had entered into an alliance which would provide Google with access to patient data. The project is known internally within Google as “Project Nightingale”. It was more or less a secret endeavor.

The usual gobbledygook ( not a disease although it sounds like it should be) spewed forth from both Google and Ascension like the poor possessed girl in “The Exorcist”. People paranoid like me of Google were concerned. Not to worry says Google. Trust us.

Ascension, having also kept this matter more or less a secret from its patients, resorted to a convoluted explanation similar to what a small child would say when he was caught with hands in the cookie jar. Trust us too!

Politiicans weighed in with their own concerns. Increasingly, the motives of these large Silicon Valley companies are being questioned. Critics are raising issues of privacy and intrusiveness. Information is power and the Googles of the world seem to relish using that power. So do politicians and they don’t like to share power.

Stripped to its basics, it seems this unholy alliance between Google and Ascension had the noble goal of using Google’s strengths in aggregating data and applying artificial intelligence to gain new insights into disease and the care thereof.

I understand Ascension’s motives in working with Google. It seems consistent with their mission of providing health care in the most effective and efficient manner. Purity of motive does not, however, justify betrayal of trust of those you serve.

I, like our elected officials, am very suspicious of Google’s motives. Clearly, Google sees a way to monetize access to patient data. Who benefits the most from this access–the patient or Google? Easy question to answer.

Why is it that when I go to the doctor or use a health system’s services, my health data, even if provided in a manner where my identity is disguised, becomes a product for others to use for profit? It’s my information and my privacy which is being violated.

Yes, there are apparently in the Google/Ascension alliance all kinds of safeguards built into the information aggregation process. The information is safe until it is not safe. Hackers are probably already at work trying to crack this treasure trove of data.

The most basic question, though, is why is my personal data for sale?No matter how pure the motives are on the part of Ascension or how much profit Google foresees access to that data will provide, patients gave neither of these organizations the right to open up their private life for a greater cause.

If this unholy alliance is going to continue, it is time for them to seek permission from patients for access to personal health data even if the information is “deidentified” and since such data has apparently some value, perhaps even pay for the privilege of using it.

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