Privacy concerns raised as Google absorbs DeepMind’s health tech unit

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NHS
(Peter Byrne/PA)

Fresh concerns about patient data have been raised after Google announced plans to bring the health division of its DeepMind artificial intelligence company more closely under its control.

The move means Google will manage the subsidiary’s Streams app, which processes NHS patient data to alert doctors if someone is at risk of developing kidney disease, potentially saving half a million hours of paperwork and helping to detect illness quicker.

UK-based DeepMind came under scrutiny last year after UK data watchdog the Information Commissioner’s Office ruled that the Royal Free NHS Foundation Trust illegally provided the data of around 1.6 million patients as part of a trial.

Critics are concerned that the change could put sensitive data in the tech giant’s hands, despite Google stressing that patient information remains under the control of the NHS.

“The staff of DeepMind Health promised they wouldn’t give data to Google, so the owners of DeepMind handed the Health team to Google, data included,” said Phil Booth, co-ordinator of medConfidential, a campaign group for confidentiality and consent in health and social care.

“DeepMind repeatedly, unconditionally, promised to never connect people’s intimate, identifiable health data to Google,” tweeted New York University Law and Tech researcher Julia Powles. “Now it’s announced… exactly that. This isn’t transparency, it’s trust demolition.”

“Patient data remains under our partners’ strict control, and all decisions about its use will continue to lie with them,” said a spokesman for DeepMind.

As part of the move, the DeepMind Health brand will cease to exist, with the independent team moving under Google Health. Staff will remain in London under the leadership of former NHS surgeon and researcher Dominic King.

“Our vision is for Streams to become an indispensable assistant for nurses and doctors everywhere,” Dr King explained.

“We believe that the platform is ready to take advantage of the predictive insights offered by AI technology, helping clinicians deliver better, faster, preventative care to patients in need.”

Google acquired DeepMind in 2014 for £400 million.

Chris Price