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Google Health Data Project Under Scrutiny


So what are tech companies doing with your data? Google is handling the medical records of millions of Americans as part of a big push into the health care industry. A project between the tech giant and one of the country's largest hospital chains is under scrutiny by federal regulators and lawmakers who are asking if Google can really be trusted. This is just the latest example of big tech companies making forays into health care and also raising questions about patient privacy. And just a note here, Google is among NPR's financial supporters. I want to bring in NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond. Good morning, Shannon.


GREENE: OK. So Google has a project that's called Project Nightingale. What is it?

BOND: This is a deal that Google has struck with Ascension, which is a big Catholic health care system that operates hospitals and doctors' offices across 20 states and D.C. It was first reported about by the Wall Street Journal this week, and Google has since confirmed it. It says it has a contract to manage Ascension's clinical data. So that's test results and hospitalization records, your treatment records - you know, your whole health history.


BOND: The companies say they want to improve patient care, and they're working on artificial intelligence tools to help get there. And as anyone who's dealt with a doctor's office or, you know, a hospital knows, a lot of these systems are really fragmented. So one doctor might not have any idea what, you know, other parts of the system are doing. All these health care providers are looking to move electronic medical records into the cloud. And for tech companies, they - there's this massive business opportunity to do that, not just for Google, but the other tech giants too, like Apple and Amazon and Microsoft.

GREENE: So all of this could be good for patients, I mean, if it organizes their medical records, if it can make recommendations for treatment and so forth. So take me to the other side of this, which is the worry.

BOND: Yeah. I think it really comes down to privacy. Google already knows so much about all of us. Now we're talking about medical history, health information. This is sensitive stuff. And so critics are asking, what else might Google do with this data? It comes on the heels of Google's recent announcement that it's buying Fitbit, which makes fitness trackers. And it's spending $2 billion on that deal. You know, so there - these are the questions that are being raised.

I spoke with Tiffany Li, a visiting technology law professor at Boston University. And she says these aggressive moves into health care by Google are going to increase the scrutiny the company is already under.

TIFFANY LI: So any sort of acquisition or any sort of partnership that gives them more data will only give Google more power and more ability to be influential in the health care sector.

BOND: Ascension and Google say Google's not allowed to use this data for its own advertising or research. The data's encrypted. It's on Google's server but in a space exclusively for Ascension. But Google does say that some Google employees working on the project have access to the data. And there are strict federal laws about who gets to handle patients' health information, and Google does say it's abiding by those laws.

GREENE: And so all of that you just said, is that satisfying lawmakers and regulators? Or are they going to keep asking a lot of questions here?

BOND: Well, this week, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says it wants more information about how the companies are collecting these medical records to make sure they are following the law. And Senator Mark Warner of Virginia said that Google and Ascension should stop this project while it's being reviewed. He told CNBC he's concerned about whether patients have been notified properly about this, you know, about their data going into Google's systems.

Some critics are also saying that Google just doesn't have a great track record on privacy, especially when it comes to health data. They're - the company is being sued over how it handled health data for a research project with the University of Chicago. The company and the university hospital were accused of leaving identifiable information in the data. Now, Google's denied those accusations.

And, you know, when I talk to people at the company, they say, look, there's a lot of competition. There's this race among tech companies to get into health care, and they don't want to let anything slow them down here.

GREENE: NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond. Thanks, Shannon.

BOND: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.