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Google's Deepmind NHS deal 'inexcusable', says academic paper

Cambridge paper has 'significant factual and analytical errors' retort pair

Google’s DeepMind and the Royal Free London NHS deal to use patient data without explicit consent was "inexcusable", an academic paper has concluded in a damning report today.

In 2016, DeepMind announced its first major health project: a collaboration with the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust – a large UK hospital organization – to assist in the management of acute kidney injury.

Initially received with great enthusiasm, the collaboration has suffered from a lack of clarity and openness, with issues of privacy and power emerging as potent challenges as the project has unfolded, noted the paper.

It slammed the approach of "secretive deals and specious claims in something as important as the health of populations."

The paper Google DeepMind and healthcare in an age of algorithms focused on the partnerships – with public health entities – as a means of illustrating the potential issues of transferring population-derived datasets “to large private prospectors, identifying critical questions for policy-makers, industry and individuals as healthcare moves into an algorithmic age.”

It concludes the 2015–16 deal between a subsidiary of the world’s largest advertising company and a major hospital trust in Britain’s centralized public health service "should serve as a cautionary tale and a call to attention."

The paper was written by Julia Powles, a Cambridge University academic, and Hal Hodson, the journalist involved the New Scientist’s coverage of the deal last year.

“Networks of information now rule our professional and personal lives. These are principally owned and controlled by a handful of US companies: Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, IBM.

“If these born-digital companies are afforded the opportunity to extend these networks into other domains of life, they will limit competition there too. This is what is at stake with Google DeepMind being given unfettered, unexamined access to population-wide health datasets. It will build, own and control networks of knowledge about disease.”

It found that the special relationship that has surged ahead between Royal Free and Google DeepMind “does not carry a positive message”.

The failure on both sides to engage in any conversation with patients and citizens is "inexcusable", it claims, particularly in the British context.

DeepMind and the Royal Free Hospital have quickly hit back with a joint statement that claims the research contains major errors. It said both parties have "the highest regard for patient privacy and confidentiality, and added:

This paper completely misrepresents the reality of how the NHS uses technology to process data. It makes a series of significant factual and analytical errors, assuming that this kind of data agreement is unprecedented. In fact, every trust in the country uses IT systems to help clinicians access current and historic information about patients, under the same legal and regulatory regime.

It added its deal with Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust to provide an app called Streams has already being used on the wards at the Hospital and "the feedback from clinicians has been overwhelmingly positive".

Meanwhile, the paper's authors said: “The accusations of factual inaccuracy and analytical error were unsubstantiated, and [we invite] the parties to respond on the record in an open forum.”

The Information Commissioner's Office is currently investigating the data transfer, as is the National Data Guardian. ®

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