As though the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal wasn't enough, a new report states that the social giant was also planning to gather medical information from a few hospitals. The mission also roped in a secret doctor.
Facebook has been reportedly speaking with hospitals last year to gather information about users’ health data. Reported by CNBC, the aim is to collect the anonymized patient’s data and match it up with the user data it had collected. As part of a proposed research project, the anonymized data includes patient’s illnesses and the prescriptions allotted to them by their respective hospitals.
However, the research project has taken a pause due to the ongoing Cambridge Analytica's data breach debacle. Since the debacle was about collecting users data and 'selling' it to the political gains, this other project might have halted for a while.
"This work has not progressed past the planning phase, and we have not received, shared, or analyzed anyone's data," a Facebook spokesperson told CNBC.
Facebook has been reportedly talking to numerous health organisations, including Stanford Medical School and American College of Cardiology, regarding the user-data-sharing agreement.
The company claims the data shared would be anonymous that means not knowing any user/patient’s name or whatsoever. Using a proposed computer science technique named “hashing” the collected anonymous health data would match the user data set that the company has collected. Facebook says all this data would only be collected for medical community research only.
As mentioned on CNBC, “For instance, if Facebook could determine that an elderly patient doesn't have many nearby close friends or much community support, the health system might decide to send over a nurse to check in after a major surgery.”
With the ongoing scenario, this proposed project would have raised concerns amongst the users; since their data is being collected might be misused similar to the Cambridge’s data breach scandal.
According to CNBC, this investigative effort of sharing medical data was led by an interventional cardiologist called Dr Freddy Abnousi and this proposal was under the purview of Regina Dugan, the head of Facebook’s “Building 8” program. Freddy's role on his LinkedIn account states that he is 'leading top-secret projects.'
Facebook provided a quote from Cathleen Gates, the interim CEO of the American College of Cardiology, explaining the possible benefits of the plan:
"For the first time in history, people are sharing information about themselves online in ways that may help determine how to improve their health. As part of its mission to transform cardiovascular care and improve heart health, the American College of Cardiology has been engaged in discussions with Facebook around the use of anonymized Facebook data, coupled with anonymized ACC data, to further scientific research on the ways social media can aid in the prevention and treatment of heart disease—the no. 1 cause of death in the world. This partnership is in the very early phases as we work on both sides to ensure privacy, transparency and scientific rigour. No data has been shared between any parties."
On the other hand, health institutions are utterly careful on sharing patient’s data due to the stricter federal privacy and state laws. Keeping this mind, Facebook proposed to obscure personally identifiable information, such as names, in the data being shared by both sides.
However, in early 2014, there have been reports that Facebook has manipulated thousands of several user's news feeds to apparently study whether certain types of content made people happier or sadder. Facebook later apologised for the study.
Furthermore, the health policy experts have raised concerns about the privacy of the users, with this Facebook’s collecting health data initiative.
According to CNBC report, Facebook had issued a statement, when asked about the plans of the initiative, which states,
"The medical industry has long understood that there are general health benefits to having a close-knit circle of family and friends. But deeper research into this link is needed to help medical professionals develop specific treatment and intervention plans that take social connection into account."
"With this in mind, last year Facebook began discussions with leading medical institutions, including the American College of Cardiology and the Stanford University School of Medicine, to explore whether scientific research using anonymized Facebook data could help the medical community advance our understanding in this area. This work has not progressed past the planning phase, and we have not received, shared, or analyzed anyone's data."
"Last month we decided that we should pause these discussions so we can focus on other important work, including doing a better job of protecting people's data and being clearer with them about how that data is used in our products and services."
Initially, this proposed collection of user-health-data project’s primary focus was on cardiovascular health of the patients; however, people are still concerned about Facebook collecting their data and they still believe that the data might be in jeopardy.
Facebook has recently admitted that information of up to 87 million people, mostly in the US, may have been improperly shared with the British political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica.