Google DeepMind, NHS partnership sparks privacy fears

Google DeepMind and the National Health Service will partner in a move that alerts providers about abnormalities in patients’ vital signs and blood results—and privacy advocates have already started to cry foul.

The artificial intelligence branch of Google and the Royal Free NHS agreed to a five-year deal that will allow Google’s algorithms to monitor the health data of 1.6 million patients, the Financial Times reports.

The deal’s proponents argue that thousands of deaths per year could be prevented from conditions such as acute kidney damage, the article notes, but critics say such promises are "unproven."

RELATED: Google's DeepMind gains access to health info for 1.6M NHS patients

Paper health records, pagers and fax machines—which comprise the status quo in many NHS hospitals—create operational delays that mean sudden changes in a patient's vital signs aren't relayed to clinicians quickly enough to prevent worsening of the illness, Mustafa Suleyman, the U.K.-based DeepMind Health cofounder, writes in a blog post. 

The notifications help nurses and doctors take preventive action in real time, “like giving intravenous antibiotics when your kidneys are dehydrated, to prevent escalation to the ICU,” said Suleyman.

In February, the AI group entered the healthcare sector to build clinician-led technologies. In August, DeepMind Health and the University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust agreed to a partnership to help radiologists plan treatments for head and neck cancer.

Still, Julia Powels, a University of Cambridge researcher specializing in technology law, contends that DeepMind and Google are getting a “free pass” to access a swath of data, the article notes.

“We do not know—and have no power to find out—what Google and DeepMind are really doing with NHS patient data, nor the extent of Royal Free’s meaningful control over what DeepMind is doing,” she told the Financial Times.

The U.K. Information Commissioner’s Office said that its investigation into the partnership is “ongoing,” according to the article. The ICO is checking whether the deal complies with current regulations, adding that it has contacted the parties involved about the use of the Streams app, the Financial Times reports.