A class action lawsuit has been launched against DeepMind, the Google-owned AI research company, over its use of the personal records of 1.6 million UK National Health Service patients (thanks, AI News). The health data was provided by the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust in 2015.
DeepMind is known for several accomplishments including kicking everyone’s ass in Starcraft 2, but he was given the records to create a health app called Streams. It was meant to be an AI-powered assistant for healthcare professionals and was used by Britain’s NHS, but no more. Last August, it was announced that Streams was being decommissioned, and DeepMind’s own “health” section is now returning a server error.
The handing over of patient records to one of the world’s largest tech companies was revealed by New Scientist in 2017, in a report showing that DeepMind had access to far more data than had been publicly announced. The UK Information Commission launched an investigation which concluded that the Royal Free Hospital had not done enough to protect patients’ privacy, following which DeepMind issued an apology. “Our investigation revealed a number of shortcomings in the way patient records were shared for this trial,” Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said at the time. “Patients would not reasonably have expected their information to be used in this way.”
The new lawsuit was launched by lead plaintiff Andrew Prismall, who was a patient at the Royal Free Hospital, and includes around 1.6 million other affected patients on an “opt-out” basis, i.e. say that all parties will be included in the action. unless they ask otherwise.
“Given the very positive experience of the NHS that I have always had during my various treatments, I was very concerned to find that a tech giant had ended up with my confidential medical file,” said Prismall said in a statement.
“As a patient undergoing medical treatment, the last thing you expect is to have your private medical records in the hands of one of the biggest tech companies in the world. I hope this case helps get a equitable and terminable outcome for all patients whose confidential records were obtained in this case without their knowledge or consent.”
Another difficulty is that this comes at a time when the UK is looking to change its data protection regulations, following its exit from the European Union. The ruling Conservative party sees EU regulations as too strict and believes they stifle innovation in areas like this. “We have an opportunity to establish global benchmark data regulation that protects privacy, but does so in the lightest way possible,” said Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden.
It is worth considering this in the wider context of the UK health service, which is a political battleground over funding. The NHS operates on the principle of free healthcare at the point of use and is funded by general taxation. In recent decades, it has increasingly relied on privatized health services in its delivery, and the encroachment of the private sector on this public health system is a hot potato: for some, it is an economic necessity. and a matter of choice, for others, is the slippery path to American-style health care. If you want a current example of this, watch the campaign to stop big data company Palantir from partnering with the NHS.
So it has to be seen as part of that larger battle: a situation where the NHS was providing patient data to a private company, which used it to build an app which it could then resell to the NHS.
The case will explore critical issues for our times and is by no means as simple as DeepMind bad NHS good. DeepMind has undeniably made crucial scientific advances with things like AlphaFold, tools like this are part of the future of medicine, and they need to be trained on large datasets. At the same time, individual 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 had access to its health data. Whatever the courts decide in this particular case, it’s something we’ll be discussing for decades.