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Facebook requested that hospitals share patient data, says CNBC

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According to a report by the CNBC news channel, Facebook had talks with hospitals and other medical organisations about the possibility of sharing data with the company. The project has since been put on hold.

Facebook approached major US medical institutions, including the Stanford University Medical School and the American College of Cardiology, to discuss the project, it is claimed. According to CNBC, the project was led by a cardiologist associated with Stanford University, Freddy Abnousi, and was supervised by Regina Dugan, the former head of Facebook’s ‘Building 8’ research and development facility.

The proposed data-sharing agreement between Facebook and the medical bodies would, according to Facebook, allow hospitals to decide which patients were most vulnerable and therefore in need of special care, as well as assisting with medical research. The initial focus of the project would have been on cardiovascular health.

Anonymised information from the hospitals – which could include diagnoses, prescriptions and appointments – would be combined with data from Facebook about users’ lifestyles, communities and preferences. Facebook proposed using a standard computational technique - hashing - to match profiles between the two datasets, despite being anonymised.

In the US, hospitals and other medical organisations are required to treat their patient data with great care, due to the sensitive nature of this data. The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act 1996 rendered it illegal to share patient data without consent. It is not known how this data-sharing project would have complied with this requirement.

Facebook has stated that no data has been shared and that the plan was put on hold last month. The company will instead focus on other work, such as “doing a better job of protecting people’s data and being clearer with them about how that data is used in our products and services.”

“Last year, Facebook began discussions with leading medical institutions, including the American College of Cardiology and the Stanford University School of Medicine, to explore whether scientific research using anonymised Facebook data could help the medical community advance our understanding in this area. This work has not progressed past the planning phase, and we have not received, shared or analysed anyone’s data,” Facebook said in a statement.

Facebook has previously been criticised for conducting research on users without their knowledge and consent, such as in 2014 when users were shown different types of content in order to investigate whether this content could manipulate their mood.

The company is now under intense scrutiny following the reports that a data analytics company, Cambridge Analytica, had scraped the personal data of tens of millions of Facebook users to use for the development of tools to target political advertising during the 2016 US presidential election and other votes.

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