Outrage mounts over Google's health care data grab

Google and Ascension call their partnership "Project Nightingale."

Unbeknownst to patients and doctors, Google has been collecting personal health data with health system Ascension, and while the partnership doesn't appear to violate federal law, privacy expert Pam Dixon told FOX Business the revelation leaves her with many unanswered questions.

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"The responsible party here is Ascension. It was their job to talk to their patients about this, to get patient input before this happened," said Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum. "We're getting a lot of response to this. People are surprised and taken aback."

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The Wall Street Journal reported that "Project Nightingale" has Google working with Ascension, the second-largest health system in the U.S., headquartered in St. Louis, to share data ranging from lab results to doctor diagnoses to hospitalization records.

In a press release distributed after the Journal published its story, Tariq Shaukat, president of Google Cloud, said of the project: "By working in partnership with leading healthcare systems like Ascension, we hope to transform the delivery of healthcare through the power of the cloud, data analytics, machine learning, and modern productivity tools—ultimately improving outcomes, reducing costs, and saving lives."

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Dixon thinks Google and Ascension need to address many concerns: whether Google integrates non-health data it has collected on individuals into Project Nightingale, whether it conducts research with the data that is out of the bounds of its agreement with Ascension and what would happen if data is breached.

"Health care information among the most sensitive information we have. Can you imagine if someone has a terrible, genetic-linked disease like Huntington's ... and that information gets breached? It's the worst nightmare of patients," Dixon said.

Chicago, IL - September 7, 2019: View of the new Google building in the West Loop, Fulton Market area of downtown Chicago.

"What is Ascension doing to make sure this info is safe? Is a third-party auditor looking after it every day?" Dixon said.

Lifewire.com editor-in-chief Lance Ulanoff pointed out that health care represents big business for tech companies on FOX Business' "Mornings with Maria" on Tuesday.

"You don't want to undermine your business. [Google is] going to try to get other health care providers to do the exact same thing, to put their data in the cloud, to organize it so they have a central portal to see the full picture," Ulanoff said.

"If they tried selling ads against it, nobody would do it, because no patients would buy it," he said.

Google Cloud said on Monday that it had shared information about the Ascension partnership during a July earnings call.

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"Back in July, on our Q2 earnings call, we announced 'Google Cloud's AI and ML solutions are helping healthcare organizations like Ascension improve the healthcare experience and outcomes.' Our work with Ascension is exactly that — a business arrangement to help a provider with the latest technology, similar to the work we do with dozens of healthcare providers."

FOX Business' inquiries to Ascension were not returned at the time of publication. Google responded to FOX Business' questions by referring back to its press release.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.