A class-action lawsuit has been launched against Google-owned AI research company DeepMind over its use of the personal records of 1.6 million patients from the UK’s National Health Service.Thanks AI NewsHealth data was provided in 2015 by the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust.
DeepMind is known for a number of achievements, not least kicking everyone’s ass in Starcraft 2, but it was given the record for having a health app called Streams. It was supposed to be an AI-powered assistant for health care professionals and has been used by the UK NHS – but no more. This August it was announced that streams being disabled, and DeepMind’s own ‘Health’ section Now gives a server error.
The handing over of patient records to one of the world’s largest technology companies was revealed in 2017 by New Scientist, showing that DeepMind had far more data than publicly declared. The UK Information Commission launched an investigation that ruled the Royal Free Hospital did not do enough to protect patients’ privacy: following which, DeepMind apologized. “Our investigation found several deficiencies in the way patient records were shared for this trial,” Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said at the time. “Patients would not have reasonably expected that their information would be used in this way.”
The new lawsuit is launched by lead plaintiff Andrew Prismall, who was a patient at the Royal Free Hospital, and includes about 1.6 million other affected patients on an ‘opt-out’ basis—that is, all parties will be involved in the action. unless they request otherwise.
“Given the very positive NHS experience that I have always had during my various treatments, I was deeply concerned to learn that a tech giant had tampered with my confidential medical records,” Prismall said in a statement.
“As a patient with any type of medical treatment, the last thing you would expect is that your personal medical records would be in the hands of one of the largest technology companies in the world. I hope this is a case in point. All patients whose confidential records were obtained in this case without their knowledge or consent.”
Another wrinkle is that it comes at a time when the UK is looking to change its data protection rules after leaving the EU. The ruling Conservative Party considers EU rules to be too strict and believes they prevent innovation in such areas. “We have an opportunity to establish a world-leading, gold standard data regulation that protects privacy, but is as light touch as possible,” says Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden.
It is pertinent to consider this in the broader context of UK healthcare, which is a political battleground regarding funding. The NHS operates on the principle of free access to health care, and is funded by general taxation. In recent decades it has made greater use of privatized health services in its provision, and the private sector’s encroachment into this public health system is a hot potato: for some it is an economic necessity and a question of choice, for others it is slippery. is the slope for an American-style healthcare system. If you want a current example of this, see Campaign to stop Big Data firm Palantir Partnership with the NHS.
So it should be seen as part of that bigger fight: a situation where the NHS was providing patient data to a private company, which was using it to build an app that it could sell back to the NHS.
The case will explore questions important to our time, and by no means as simple as DeepMind’s bad NHS good. DeepMind has undoubtedly made significant scientific advances with things like AlphaFold, as devices are part of the future of medicine, and they need to be trained on large data sets. Also personal privacy is a cornerstone of Western society and, as Mr Prismall says, it is shocking to find that a company the size of Google has access to anyone’s health data. Whatever the courts decide in this particular case, it is a topic we will discuss for decades to come.