Google AI in healthcare
An attendee interacts with an illuminated panel at Google stand during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, March 1, 2017.REUTERS/Paul Hanna Reuters

Global internet behemoth Google is running a secret artificial intelligence (AI) project to gather detailed medical records on millions of Americans, it has been reported. Ascension, one of the largest health providers in the US, is Google's partner in the project, the WSJ reported.

The initiative is titled 'Project Nightingale' and it has been collecting medical records of patients in 22 US states. Under the project, details such as hospitalization records as well as lab results and doctor diagnoses are being collected. The project has been in operation for more than a year now.

What is Project Nightingale?

Under the partnership with Google, Ascension passed on patient data to Google's Cloud servers. Sensitive data relating to tens of millions of patients is being collected without their consent, the report said. The data collected by Google and Ascension give a complete picture about the medical status of each patient.

Along with medication and diagnosis details, the data sets have details like patient name, date of birth etc. "The page includes complete patient information as well as notes about patient medical issues, test results and medications, including information from scanned documents," Forbes reported.

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Professor Karl Oldhafer, chief physician of general and visceral surgery at the Asklepios Hospital Hamburg-Barmbek, adjusts a tablet computer to access and visualize planning data during liver surgery. Reuters

"Wow – this is downright alarming. Do you trust Google with your blood test results, diagnoses, sensitive health information?... Google's secret 'Project Nightingale' gathers personal health data on millions of Americans," Republican National Committee member Harmeet K. Dhillon tweeted.

What is Ascension and why are they doing it?

St. Louis-based Ascension describes itself as a faith-based healthcare organization dedicated to transformation through innovation across the continuum of care. Ascension defended the work saying it is underpinned by a robust data security and protection effort and adherence to its strict requirements for data handling. Key elements of the project are focused around "data integration, privacy and security and compliance," the company said, adding that the main goal of the project is to modernize its infrastructure with help from Google Cloud.

More data grabbing going on?

WSJ said in its report that Google aims at developing an application employing AI and machine learning to track patients and recommend treatments. A New York Times article that followed also highlighted the fact that dozens of Google employees may have access to sensitive patient data collected under the collaboration with Ascension.

Google's recent acquisition of Fitbit, which makes fitness tracking devices, had alarmed people across the world over potential data grabbing by the behemoth. Google's partnership with the University of Chicago in a medical data project had also come under heavy criticism recently. Google and the University of Chicago Medical Center and University of Chicago are defendants in a class action suit.

Fitbit
Fitbit Reuters

What is Google saying?

After the report was published, Google denied that it was been secretly gathering the health records of Americans. "To be clear: under this arrangement, Ascension's data cannot be used for any other purpose than for providing these services we're offering under the agreement, and patient data cannot and will not be combined with any Google consumer data," the company said in a blog post.