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NHS app and patient data transferred to Google Health in controversial restructuring

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DeepMind Health – a subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet – has been moved into Google in a restructuring of the organisation, breaking a promise that patient data would never be connected to Google services.

DeepMind was established as an independent company in 2010, before being acquired by Google in 2014. The company has made headlines for its neural network trained to play video games, its ‘AlphaGo’ program – which beat champions at the game Go – and its achievements using artificial intelligence in healthcare, such as creating a program to analyse eye scans for early signs of diseases that can lead to blindness.

DeepMind Health has been working with London NHS hospitals and trusts for at least two years in develop AI tools to assist with early cancer diagnosis and to create a clinical app (Streams) for healthcare professionals which analyses patient records and alerts staff when patients are at risk.

In 2016, New Scientist revealed that a data-sharing agreement between DeepMind and the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust allowed DeepMind Health access to data relating to its 1.6 million patients; this included highly sensitive data relating to HIV diagnosis, clinical depression and terminated pregnancies. In 2017, the Information Commissioner’s Office ruled that the NHS Trust had failed to comply with the Data Protection Act when it shared this patient data with DeepMind.

The appropriateness of DeepMind’s NHS collaborations have been called into question once again with a statement that Streams will be joining Google Health in a “major milestone” for DeepMind. Streams staff will remain based in London and will remain “fully committed to all our NHS partners”.

According to Google, the restructuring will enable Streams to scale up internationally.

“Our vision is for Streams to now become an AI-powered assistant for nurses and doctors everywhere, combining the best algorithms with intuitive design, all backed up by rigorous evidence,” the statement said. “The team working within Google, alongside brilliant colleagues from across the organisation, will help make this vision a reality.”

Data privacy advocates have criticised the decision, arguing that the move represents a broken pledge from DeepMind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman that “at no stage will patient data ever be linked or associated with Google accounts, products or services.”

Julia Powles, a New York University Law School researcher who has been critical of DeepMind Health’s dealings with the NHS, wrote on Twitter: “DeepMind said it would never connect Streams with Google. The whole Streams app is now a Google product. That is an atrocious breach of trust, for an already beleaguered product.”

DeepMind Health acknowledged privacy concerns, stating that: “Patient data remains under our partners’ strict control and all decisions about its use will continue to lie with them.”

The move will also coincide with the dissolution of an independent review board, which was established to bring oversight to DeepMind’s work with the public healthcare sector. Google stated that the board was too concerned with the UK to provide global oversight.

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