Google’s healthcare partnership sparks fears for privacy of millions

The announcement comes after Google revealed its acquisition of Fitbit.

The announcement comes after Google revealed its acquisition of Fitbit. Photograph: Dado Ruvić/Reuters

Google’s announcement of a partnership with a major healthcare provider raises fresh privacy concerns as the tech company expands its footprint into the healthcare industry.

Monday’s announcement comes after the Wall Street Journal revealed Google had won access to health-related information of millions of Americans across 21 states through the partnership with Ascension – the second-largest healthcare system in the US.

The Journal reported that the data involved in the project includes lab results, doctor diagnoses and hospitalization records, among other categories, and amounts to a complete health history, including patient names and dates of birth.

The collaboration, code-named “Project Nightingale”, began in secret last year, according to the Journal.

Google’s parent company, Alphabet, on Monday officially signed Ascension, its biggest cloud computing customer in healthcare yet.

The partnership will give Google access to datasets that could help it tune its potentially lucrative artificial intelligence tools.

Ascension said in a statement the agreement would also explore artificial intelligence and machine learning applications to help improve clinical effectiveness, as well as patient safety.

The Google Cloud CEO, Thomas Kurian, has made it a priority in his first year on the job to aggressively chase business from leaders in six industries, including healthcare. Google recently announced plans to buy Fitbit Inc for $2.1bn, aiming to enter the wearables market and invest in digital health.

The company previously had touted smaller healthcare clients, such as the Colorado Center for Personalized Medicine.

Google has spent several years developing artificial intelligence to automatically analyze MRI scans and other patient data to identify diseases and make predictions aimed at improving outcomes and reducing cost.

Ascension, which operates 150 hospitals and more than 50 senior living facilities across United States, said the partnership was in compliance with the US data privacy act Hipaa (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), which safeguards medical information.