DeepMind’s health app Streams is being consumed by its sister company, Google, and some privacy advocates see the move as a violation of patient trust.
Streams was originally developed by the Alphabet-owned British AI company DeepMind to send data and alerts to doctors and nurses. But the app drew controversy last year when watchdogs found that the Royal Free NHS Foundation Trust violated data protection regulations by giving DeepMind 1.6 million patient records without informing the patients. Under this arrangement, DeepMind was reportedly able to access sensitive information like mental health history, HIV results, and abortions. The Information Commissioner’s Office decided that the deal was illegal.
DeepMind announced in a blog post on Tuesday that Streams will be absorbed by Google. The post described its vision for Streams becoming “an AI-powered assistant for nurses and doctors everywhere.”
For now the move affects the 10 NHS hospitals that the DeepMind Health division partnered with, according to BBC.
As CNBC pointed out, some privacy advocates have been scrutinizing the move on social media.
Julia Powles, a privacy and law researcher who has been tracking Stream sees the merger as “trust demolition,” since DeepMind repeatedly claimed it wouldn’t not share identifiable patient information with Google.
Carissa Véliz, a digital ethics researcher at Oxford University, is also extremely skeptical of what Google will do with DeepMind’s work: “We cannot be assured that DeepMind is independent from Alphabet,” Véliz told the Telegraph. “It seems that all we have to vouch for its independence is their word, and their word is not good enough when promises have been broken, when the stakes are high, and rights may be in danger, as they are when it comes to the management of sensitive data.”
DeepMind responded to BBC’s enquiry about the criticism by insisting: “Patient data remains under our NHS partners’ strict control, and all decisions about its use will continue to lie with them. The move to Google does not affect this.”
But Powles said she’s not buying it. “For two and a half years now, at every available opportunity, DeepMind has stated unequivocally that it will never connect the health data it collects under Streams with Google,” Powles told Gizmodo. “It has now completely reversed course. The firm’s canned response about its ongoing commitment to its NHS projects and partners is an unapologetic diversion from this brazen deception. This move completely demolishes trust in Streams, an application whose progress has been marked by misrepresentations, obfuscation and, as found by the British data protection authority last summer, illegality.”
DeepMind was acquired by Google in 2014, more than a year before Google announced the creation of its parent company, Alphabet. Responding to a Gizmodo request for comment on privacy concerns, DeepMind sent Gizmodo a statement from Dominic King, a former NHS surgeon who is the project lead for Stream.
“This data is not DeepMind’s or Google’s—it belongs to the NHS partners themselves. We process it according to their instructions—nothing more.” King said. “At this stage our contracts have not moved across to Google and will not without our partners’ consent. The same applies to the data that we process under these contracts. All decisions about how patient data is processed will continue to lie with our NHS partners.”
King emphasized again that as for now nothing has changed: “So, to be absolutely clear, at this stage our contracts have not moved to Google and nothing has changed in terms of where the data we process is stored,” King said.
Presumably, privacy advocates and watchdogs will be monitoring what Google does with Streams in future stages.