Google To Take Over Controversial NHS App

The search and advertising giant is accused of ‘trust demolition’ after announcing that it plans to take direct control of London-based DeepMind Health

Google is to take over DeepMind Health, and its flagship app, Streams, in a move that adds to the controversy over the NHS’ relationship with DeepMind and Google.

The app was originally designed to provide acute kidney injury detection and alerts, but has been expanded into a full dashboard for medical records.

Artificial intelligence-focused DeepMind was founded in 2010 and while it remains based in London, it was taken over by Google in 2014. With the formation of Google’s holding company parent Alphabet in 2015, the firm was technically classed as a sister company to Google, with both being subsidiaries of Alphabet.

DeepMind also began research into healthcare in 2015, and an initial deal with the NHS to develop Streams was later ruled by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to have used the medical data of 1.6 patients illegally, since the patients involved were not informed.

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

International expansion

As a result, an independent review panel was set up to oversee DeepMind’s relationship with the NHS, but this will now be scrapped, at least in its current form, DeepMind confirmed.

The company said the review board is overly focused on the UK, and would be “unlikely to be the right structure” to interact with an internationally oriented body.

The ICO said it expects the measures set out in its audits to remain in place.

DeepMind said that the move from DeepMind Health to a newly formed Google business called Google Health is aimed at scaling the Streams app worldwide.

Staff working on Streams and clinical evaluations of algorithms are to transfer to Google Health, while those involved in research, as opposed to product development, will continue to work for DeepMind.

Dominic King, a former NHS surgeon and DeepMind Health’s former clinical director, is to lead the London team, the company said.

“One of the reasons we joined forces with Google was to give us the platform to more rapidly bring our technologies to the wider world,” said DeepMind co-founder and chief executive Demis Hassabis in a statement. “The research team at DeepMind will continue to lead the way in applying AI to important fundamental research questions in science and medicine.”

‘Trust demolition’

DeepMind Health’s move to Google has raised hackles with privacy advocates in part due to the way in which the firm formerly took care to ensure that its NHS operations were separate from the operations of the online search and advertising giant.

DeepMind said in a statement that the processing of NHS patient data would remain “subject to both our contracts and data protection legislation”.

But it will now be California-based Google, and not London-based DeepMind, which will be operating the Streams app, which relies by its nature on the processing of patients’ sensitive medical information.

With the well-publicised scandals around the use of users’ personal information by large advertising-driven technology firms such as Google and Facebook, Google’s direct involvement with the NHS is likely to come as a shock to many.

The move has already raised a backlash with critics, with Julia Powles, a research fellow at New York University’s Information Law Institute who has criticised DeepMind Health in the past, saying the move to Google was “totally unacceptable”.

“This isn’t transparency, it is trust demolition,” she wrote on Twitter.

UK medical privacy group MedConfidential referred to a 2016 BBC article in which DeepMind was said to be ensuring that Streams data “isn’t shared with Google”.

At the time, DeepMind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman said that patient data would never be “linked or associated with Google accounts, products or services”.

Powles told The Guardian that Google’s position that it would process patients’ data without associating them with Google “accounts, products or services” amounted to “sleight of hand”.

Intellectual property

Observers have also pointed out that while Google is now in a position to expand Streams worldwide because of its partnership with the NHS, the NHS gains no benefit from that expansion.

Indeed, while DeepMind Health has until now provided the NHS with Streams for free, the company said in June that it planned to begin charging the NHS at a later date.

Google is in a legal position to make these moves because, legally speaking, the development of Streams is not based on any NHS intellectual property, such as patient data, but only on DeepMind Health’s refinement of the app based on its use within NHS trusts.

As an audit by law firm Linklaters found earlier this year, the Streams app does not even involve artificial intelligence, machine learning or “other advanced technology”.

“The benefits of the Streams app instead come from a very well-designed and user-friendly interface, backed up by solid infrastructure and data management,” Linklaters wrote.