A Google artificial intelligence (AI) programme has been given access to an estimated 1.6 million NHS patient files, New Scientist claims.
DeepMind is the search giant’s artificial intelligence platform that reportedly has a data-sharing agreement in place with the NHS as part of a plan to build an app that can alert doctors to patients who are at risk from kidney injuries.
Privacy campaigners have voiced their concern at the move but Google has defended the plan, saying it can help improve patient safety.
The agreement gives DeepMind access to data from all patients who pass through the Royal Free, Barnet and Chase Farm hospitals in London each year until 2017, also including the past five years, when Google will then be obliged to delete the data.
Deepmind was created in early 2014 after Google acquired a British start-up developing artificial intelligence for £242m. Its ranks were bolstered later in the year by the founders of Oxford University based spin-offs Dark Blue Labs and Vision Factory.
Phil Booth, coordinator of patient data protection group medConfidential, was largely critical of Google’s data collection on patients.
"There are existing and strong processes for doing safe medical research using data; but this project seems to have followed none of them,” he said.
"To ensure patient confidence, properly run projects require transparency on what is being done, and why. That is to protect patients from the confusion about what this data will be used for.
"Even now, we have no idea why Google needed so many sensitive details of every treatment for every patient in the hospital, covering over half a decade."
Google responded by explaining that the data collected is encrypted, will not be used commercially and its staff will be unable to personally identify patients.
DeepMind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman said: "We are working with clinicians at the Royal Free to understand how technology can best help clinicians recognise patient deterioration - in this case AKI.
"We have, and will always, hold ourselves to the highest possible standards of patient data protection. This data will only ever be used for the purposes of improving healthcare and will never be linked with Google accounts or products."
Meanwhile, FBI requests for customer records under a secretive surveillance order increased by nearly 50 per cent in 2015, according to a US government transparency report published this week.
Internet and telecommunications companies in 2015 received 48,642 requests, up from 33,024 reported in 2014, for data via so-called National Security Letters (NSLs).
The NSL is a tool used by the FBI to gather phone numbers, email and IP addresses, web browsing histories and other information.
This backs up similar claims made by Facebook last week which alleged that government requests for account data increased by 13 per cent in the second half of 2015, with the United States and India making the most requests.