Alphabet’s Google and DeepMind Technologies are being sued over the alleged “unlawful use of patients’ confidential medical records.”

On Monday, the law firm Mishcon de Reya announced the High Court representative action, revealing it was acting on behalf of Andrew Prismall, who brought the claim on behalf of approximately 1.6 million individuals.

The claim is for the misuse of private information and arises out of an arrangement formed in 2015 between Google and DeepMind and the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust, said the law firm.

NHS data

It alleged the tech companies obtained and used a substantial number of confidential medical records without patients’ knowledge or consent.

“I hope that this case can achieve a fair outcome and closure for the many patients whose confidential records were – without the patients’ knowledge – obtained and used by these large tech companies,” said Mr Prismanll.

“This claim is particularly important as it should provide some much-needed clarity as to the proper parameters in which technology companies can be allowed to access and make use of private health information,” added Ben Lasserson, Partner at Mishcon de Reya.

The case centres over the five year data sharing agreement that was signed in 2016 between the Royal Free NHS Trust and Google’s DeepMind artificial intelligence (AI) division.

The agreement was linked to the development of DeepMind’s mobile application called Streams, aimed at helping hospital staff monitor patients with kidney disease.

But under the terms of the agreement, which weren’t disclosed until they were reported by science magazine New Scientist in April 2016, Google had broad access to data on the 1.6 million patients who used the trust’s three hospitals (Barnet, Chase Farm and the Royal Free) each year.

The data included information on people who are HIV-positive and details of drug overdoses and abortions, as well as real-time data on admissions, discharges and patient transfers, and access to five years of patient data.

ICO ruling

Google at the time acknowledged the agreement, saying the NHS had no separate data set for people with kidney conditions, which meant all hospital data was needed in order for Streams to run effectively.

The data sharing deal was then lambasted in an academic paper in March 2017 published in Health and Technology for failing to be clear over privacy and data use, which in turn helped prompt an official investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), alongside complaints from the general public.

In July 2017 the ICO ruled that the data sharing agreement was illegal, as it deemed the deal to be a breach of the Data Protection Act.

As a result of an investigation by the ICO, Royal Free NHS Trust were asked to sign an undertaking which committed it to acting in accordance to data protection laws with the assistance of the ICO.

What Happened To DeepMind?

DeepMind was founded in the UK in 2010, by 37-year-old former teenage chess prodigy and neuroscientist Demis Hassabis, along with Shane Legg and Mustafa Suleyman.

DeepMind co-founder and chief executive Demis Hassabis. Image credit: DeepMind

The firm was created to find applications for artificial intelligence technologies created by British researchers. It specialised in machine learning and developing systems in neuroscience, primarily for use in e-commerce and games.

In 2014 Google acquired DeepMind, and while no purchase price was officially revealed (it was thought to be £400 million), sources reported Google’s CEO Larry Page had been heavily involved in the deal – a sign of the status Google placed on the acquisition.

But Google’s tenure of DeepMind was not to last.

In November 2018 Google announced it would transfer control of DeepMind to a new Google Health division in California, as part of its efforts to commercialise its medical research efforts.

In 2019 London-based DeepMind artificial intelligence unit created a working prototype of what would be its first commercial medical device, the result of the unit’s three-year collaboration with Moorfields Eye Hospital.

Then Google officially absorbed DeepMind Health and its team into its new health division.

In 2021 it was reported that Google had disbanded its Health division and transferred its remaining staff to other divisions.

In January 2022 DeepMind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman left Google for a job at a venture capitalist firm.

DeepMind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman. Image credit: DeepMind
Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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