Why Google is collecting health data on millions of Americans

Google has confirmed it’s collecting health data on millions of Americans through a new partnership with Ascension, one of the country’s largest nonprofit health systems.

The tech company and Ascension confirmed they were working together to analyze patient data to give health care providers new insights and care suggestions for patients. The project, codenamed “Project Nightingale,” was first reported by the Wall Street Journal Monday.

Although light on specifics, Google and Ascension said the partnership would integrate Ascension’s various silos of health data in the cloud. In a blog post, Google said the project was a “business arrangement to help a provider with the latest technology, similar to the work we do with dozens of other healthcare providers.”

At least 150 Google employees had access to patient data, the Journal reported. But Google said it is adhering to regulatory privacy standards, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. Google said the partnership’s rules were “standard practice” and that Ascension’s data “cannot be used for any other purpose than for providing these services we’re offering under the agreement, and patient data cannot and will not be combined with any Google consumer data.”

Google acknowledged the sensitivity of patient health data, adding that it’s “understandable” people wanted to ask questions about Project Nightingale. That’s why both companies issued public statements about the project hours after the Journal report.

St. Louis-based Ascension, which operates 2,600 facilities in nearly two dozen states, said its partnership with Google followed the law. But according to the Journal, some Ascension employees have questioned how Google is sharing and collecting the patient data.

Tech companies regularly come under scrutiny for how they handle user data.

For example, Google agreed to pay a record $170 million penalty with the Federal Trade Commission to settle accusations that YouTube broke the law when it knowingly tracked and sold ads targeted to children. Facebook, Amazon and Apple have also garnered controversy for several privacy issues, too.

Google is racing Microsoft, Apple and Amazon to gain an edge in the health care. All three companies have developed initiatives to modernize the US health care system in the past few years.

In 2018, Amazon announced a partnership with Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase to develop Haven to curtail health care’s rising costs. Earlier this year, Microsoft announced a partnership with Walgreens and Apple has rolled out series of health care initiatives.

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