A Google executive defended the NHS's decision to give Google access to patient records on Thursday.
Last week, New Scientist reported that the NHS, the British national healthcare system, has given Google access to approximately 1.6 million patient records in order to help the internet giant develop an app to monitor possible kidney failure.
Thomas Davies, head of Google Enterprise in Northern and Central Europe, said at the AI Summit conference in London that Google was given access to the data because of "trust."
A member of the audience asked Davies: "Why is Google a good fit to be determining what happens to patients and whether they might be susceptible to certain diseases?" They added: "How did that come about and what exactly is DeepMind doing with those patient records?"
To the surprise of several people in the audience, Davies replied. He said:
That relationship was formed for us to try and help frontline staff. Go and have a read, go and have a look at the DeepMind website. It explains what they’re trying to do.
A lot of the work that they’re doing, and we’re doing as a company, is to try and give people the infrastructure, the computational power, and the intelligence to go and do this sort of data analysis. The key thing is how do you expose that. Most importantly for me, is to expose it with a mobile device. It’s very much around putting data into an application that allows frontline staff to do their job better.
Why Google? I honestly don’t think it’s any different to the discussion I’ve had thousands of times in the past decade. It’s to do with trust. Who do you trust with your data?
Our core business is security. You may not know this … but you know who our head of security is? It’s Sergey Brin. Right. We take this pretty seriously. We have seven services with over a billion users. If we get that wrong it is going to be damaging to us.
Believe me, trust, security, and privacy actually go hand in hand. Privacy, especially in Europe, is a fluid environment. It changes almost daily. All I can say is security is our core business. We’ve been doing this a long time. We’re trying to do things to make things better. That is the underlying principle.
Through the data-sharing agreement with the NHS, first obtained by New Scientist, Google will be able to see, for example, information about people who are HIV-positive as well as details of drug overdoses and abortions, according to New Scientist.
Critics have questioned why Google is sucking up vast amounts of medical data in secret just to build a kidney monitoring app.
The NHS has approximately 1,500 data-sharing agreements in place with non-NHS organisations. Patients are not told about each of these agreements before they are signed "because it's not practical,"MailOnline reported.
Daniel Nesbitt, research director of privacy and civil liberties pressure group Big Brother Watch, said in a statement earlier this week: "With more and more information being shared about us it's becoming clear that in many cases members of the public simply don't know who has access to their information.
"All too often we see data being shared without the informed consent or proper understanding of those it will actually affect.
"It's vital that patients are properly informed about any plans to share their personal information."
Dominic King, a senior scientist at Google DeepMind, told the BBC: "Access to timely and relevant clinical data is essential for doctors and nurses looking for signs of patient deterioration. This work focuses on acute kidney injuries that contribute to 40,000 deaths a year in the UK, many of which are preventable.
"The kidney specialists who have led this work are confident that the alerts our system generates will transform outcomes for their patients. For us to generate these alerts it is necessary for us to look at a range of tests taken at different time intervals."