Google DeepMind given ‘inappropriate’ access to UK health records

Google DeepMind Streams app

DeepMind Technologies Inc. has become one of the best known names in artificial intelligence research thanks partly to its work with AlphaGo, but the Google Inc.-owned AI company may be in some trouble in the United Kingdom.

The U.K.’s National Data Guardian, which is in charge of protecting citizens’ confidential health information, has issued a letter revealed Monday saying that DeepMind received inappropriate access to patient data for its partnership with the National Health Service.

The NDG sent the letter to DeepMind partner hospital the Royal Free, and it cautions the hospital that DeepMind’s access to health data has “inappropriate legal basis.” The U.K.’s Information Commissioner’s Office has been investigating DeepMind’s partnerships to determine if they violate privacy laws, and the organization has said that it is “close to conclusion.”

DeepMind accessed the data for use with its Streams app (pictured), which is aimed at streamlining patient care by giving health care providers continual updates on new developments such as test results. The idea behind Streams is to allow doctors to react to situations quickly and prioritize treatments in real time.

According to the NDG’s letter, the organization does not take issue with the intended use of the data but rather how it was used to develop Streams in the first place.

“It is my view and that of my panel that the purpose for the transfer of 1.6 million identifiable patient records to Google DeepMind was for the testing of the Streams application, and not for the provision of direct care to patients,” NDG head Fiona Caldicott said in the letter. “Given that Streams was going through testing and therefore could not be relied upon for patient care, any role the application might have played in supporting the provision of direct care would have been limited and secondary to the purpose of the data transfer. My considered opinion therefore remains that it would not have been within the reasonable expectation of patients that their records would have been shared for this purpose.”

Caldicott admitted in the letter that organizations such as the Royal Free could use more guidance in how to handle confidential data when developing new technology, and she said that “the Department of Health is looking closely at the regulatory framework and guidance provided to organisations taking forward this type of innovation.”

A DeepMind spokesperson argued that hospitals could not take a new service such as Streams live without first testing it thoroughly. But the spokesperson also said that DeepMind is “glad the NDG has said that further guidance would be useful to organisations which are undertaking work to test new technologies.”

Image: Google