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May 16, 2017

Google DeepMind under fire after being given access to 1.6M medical records

by John_A

Why it matters to you

Criticism of DeepMind’s access to personal health data may inform future legislation about the legality of using that data for research purposes.

Google subsidiary DeepMind has accomplished some amazing things over the past couple of years, from beating humans at their own game to saving its parent company money on its electricity bill. Now, however, it’s coming under major scrutiny because of the specifics of a deal with the United Kingdom’s National Health Service.

DeepMind forged a deal with the NHS that gave it access to health records from over 1.6 million patients, but the United Kingdom government’s data watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office, is investigating the arrangement, according to a report from The Verge.

The sticking point seems to be whether DeepMind had the legal right to handle personally identifiable medical records belonging to NHS patients without asking for permission on an individual basis. This kind of access is legal under U.K. law, but only so long as the entity involved is providing direct care to the patients in question.

DeepMind maintains that it is providing direct care, so there’s nothing wrong with the deal. However, the U.K. government’s National Data Guardian has argued that the company usage of the data — testing out a smartphone app called Streams — falls outside the boundary of direct care.

The Streams app is able to detect if patients are suffering from life-threatening kidney problems and help medical professionals administer the necessary treatment, according to a report from Sky News. It’s easy to understand the contribution that DeepMind is making to this important project, but there’s still a gray area from a legal perspective.

A spokesperson for the Royal Free, the organization that brought DeepMind on board with the project, has stated the importance of lessons learned from a “pioneering” project such as this. Meanwhile, a representative from DeepMind has reiterated that none of the information shared with the company would ever be used for commercial purposes, or to further Google’s products, services, or ads.

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