In a frightening illustration of how completely Americans today have lost control over their personal data, Google has partnered with Clayton-based health care giant Ascension to collect detailed medical information on millions of Americans — including patient identities and dates of birth — without notifying them or their doctors.
The search-engine behemoth, trying to nose in on one of the most lucrative segments of the economy, says it wants to improve health care for everyone. Even if that's the goal, it doesn't justify these truly Orwellian means. The fact that the existence of the project was only publicly acknowledged after The Wall Street Journal exposed it indicates that even Google understands how unacceptable this kind of intrusion is.
Yet the two companies are doing it anyway — and there's apparently no law to stop it. That should change.
As the Journal reported Monday, Google last year penned an agreement with Ascension, the nation's largest nonprofit health care provider, to gather medical information from facilities across 21 states, including Missouri and Illinois. The data-sharing endeavor, code named "Project Nightingale," was started secretly. The data includes patient names, lab results, diagnoses and other information that, as the Journal puts it, "amounts to a complete health history" of patients.
Consider it: Even as you read this, your personal medical information could be getting crunched in a Google database designed to help the company get a foothold in the health care industry. You had no ability to opt out; you were never even told of it, and neither was your doctor.
The goal is to develop health care focused artificial intelligence tools to improve clinical effectiveness, Ascension said in a statement — one that came only after the Journal report exposed the secret project. The company stressed it is operating in accordance with federal medical privacy regulations, but that isn't the point. At least 150 Google employees had access to data on tens of millions of patients. Some Ascension employees have raised ethical concerns about the project.
Google and other tech giants like Facebook and Twitter operate in a Wild West atmosphere of few regulations, even as they gather information about individual Americans on a scale that has never been possible before. Whether it's hyper-targeted advertising, manipulation of politics or, now, deep mining of medical data, their ability to access and monetize every corner of Americans' personal lives is out of control.
Google and Ascension can cite all the legal justification they want, but the apparent legality of this project only makes it all the more disturbing. Congress should investigate whether any patient data was improperly handled. Just as importantly, it should get aggressive about setting some rules of the road for these tech companies on the gathering and use of personal data. Without them, tech companies will continue to careen out of control.
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