British privacy advocates alarmed by Google's takeover of UK health app

Heather Parry

By Heather Parry

15 November 2018

Privacy campaigners in the UK have signalled their alarm this week after Google announced that the health portion of its AI lab DeepMind, based in London, would be transferred into the hands of US-based Google Health.

DeepMind Health is linked to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) by way of the Streams app, which a number of NHS doctors and nurses use to manage user data. When DeepMind began working the NHS it made the promise that “data will never be connected to Google accounts or services”.

According to privacy advocates, this restructuring breaks that promise.

DeepMind has already shaken user confidence; last year, the British government ruled that the company had made an illegal deal with hospitals for access to 1.6 million patient health records.

By the time of the decision, the company had already rewritten its NHS contracts. This new restructure means that an independent review body, designed to oversee these deals with the NHS specifically, will also be disbanded.

A DeepMind spokesperson said:

All patient data remains under our partners’ strict control, and all decisions about its use lie with them. This data remains subject to strict audit and access controls and its processing remains subject to both our contracts and data protection legislation. The move to Google does not affect this.

However, Privacy researcher Julia Powles told the Guardian:

Making this about semantics is a sleight of hand. DeepMind said it would never connect Streams with Google. The whole Streams app is now a Google product. That is an atrocious breach of trust, for an already beleaguered product.

Google argues that the move is necessary in order for Streams to “scale up” to be a global product—but this will do little to assauge the fears of British consumers, for whom the NHS is sacrosanct.

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