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Google's secret 'Project Nightingale' gathers personal health data on millions of Americans



Google is involved in a secret project with one of the nation's largest health care systems to collect and crush the detailed personal health information of millions of Americans across 21 states, according to people familiar with the matter and internal documents. [19659002] The initiative, codenamed "Project Nightingale," appears to be the largest in a series of efforts by Silicon Valley giants to access personal health data and establish a toe in the massive health care industry.

Amazon.com Inc.,

Apple Inc.

and

Microsoft Corp

is also aggressively pushing into the health care system, even though they have not yet made offers to this extent.

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Google started efforts last year with St. Louis-based Ascension, the second largest health care system in the United States, with data sharing accelerating this summer and fall, the documents show.

The data involved in Project Nightingale relates to laboratory results, medical diagnoses and hospitalizations, among other categories, and constitutes a complete health history, including patient name and date of birth.

Neither patients nor doctors have been notified. At least 1

50 Google employees already have access to much of the data on tens of millions of patients, according to a person familiar with the case and the documents.

Some Ascension employees have raised questions about how the data is being collected and shared, both from a technological and ethical perspective, according to people familiar with the project, but privacy experts said it appeared to be allowed under federal law. This Act, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, generally allows hospitals to share data with business partners without telling patients, as long as the information is used "just to help the covered entity perform its health care functions." [19659006] In this case, Google uses the data, in part, to design new software, underpinned by advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning, that zero in on some patients to suggest changes in their care. Employees across

Alphabet Inc.,

Google's parents have access to patient information, showing documents, including some Google Brain employees, a research science department that is credited with some of the company's biggest breakthroughs.

A Google spokeswoman said the project complies with federal health law and includes robust patient data protection. A spokesman for the Ascension of Christ had no immediate comment.

Tech giants such as Amazon and Apple are expanding their businesses to include electronic health records – containing data on diagnoses, prescriptions and other medical information. It creates both opportunities and gives rise to privacy. This is what you should know. Image composite: Heather Seidel / The Wall Street Journal

Google and nonprofit have parallel financial motives. Google has awarded dozens of engineers to Project Nightingale so far, without paying for the work, because they hope to use the framework to sell similar products to other health systems. The ultimate goal is to create an omnibus search tool to gather different patient data and host it all in one place, documents show.

The project is being developed under Google's cloud division, leading to competitors such as Amazon and Microsoft in market shares. Google CEO

Sundar Pichai

has said repeatedly this year that finding new growth areas for cloud is a priority.

Ascension, a Catholic chain with 2,600 hospitals, medical offices and other facilities, aims in part to improve patient care. It also hopes to get data to order more tests or decide where it might be able to make more money on an individual patient, documents show. Ascension is also eager for a faster system than the existing decentralized electronic record keeping network.

Google, like many Silicon Valley peers, has at times been criticized for not doing enough to protect users' privacy. The YouTube unit agreed to pay $ 170 million in fines and make changes in practice in response to complaints that they were illegally collecting data on children to sell ads. YouTube has neither admitted nor denied wrongdoing.

Last year, The Wall Street Journal reported that Google was hiding an error that exposed hundreds of thousands of birth dates, contact information and other personal information about subscribers to the now defunct social networking site Google Plus, partly because of fears that the incident could trigger regulatory scrutiny. Google said at the time that it went beyond legal requirements in deciding not to inform users.

Write to Rob Copeland at rob.copeland@wsj.com

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