Three years ago, artificial intelligence company DeepMind embarked on a landmark effort to transform health care in the UK. Now plans by owner Alphabet to wrap the partnership into its Google search engine business are tripping alarm bells about privacy.
Data protection advocates cried foul when the company reversed course on an earlier pledge to keep DeepMind Health, which taps millions of British medical records to monitor and diagnose disease, separate from Google. This month Alphabet said it plans to consolidate the businesses.
While Google says it will continue to ring-fence the patient data, critics say the potential for abuse is significant: What if the company later backtracks and pairs medical records with its search engine and Gmail app, which harbour extensive information on users’ daily lives? That would present a formidable risk to privacy, they say, and could cost patients and providers dearly if the company converted the data into high-priced products.
“Google turns patient data into secret intellectual property that ensures treating future patients will be very, very expensive,” said Deborah Peel, head of Patient Privacy Rights, a US-based advocacy group. “Corporations are governed by profits and Google Health is all about profits.”
Google will help bring DeepMind Health’s benefits to more people around the world faster than it could have ever accomplished on its own, said Dominic King, a former surgeon in the UK’s National Health Service and helped develop an app, called Streams, for tracking severe kidney injury. DeepMind Health is also developing systems for predicting eye disease and breast cancer risk. “I am excited to see our vision for Streams to become a reality at scale,” said King, who’s transferring into the new Google Health unit, in an email.