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Google's Secret Project Nightingale collects personal health data from millions of Americans

Google is committed to one of the largest healthcare systems in the country to collect and lubricate detailed personal health information for millions of Americans in 21 states.

The initiative, codenamed Project Nightingale, appears to be the largest in a series of efforts by Silicon Valley giants to gain access to personal health data and establish a pinnacle in the mass healthcare industry.

Amazon.com Inc.,

Apple Inc.


Microsoft Corp.

they are also aggressively pushing for healthcare, although they have not yet reached deals in this range.

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Google began efforts secretly last year with St. Louis Ascension, the second largest healthcare system in the United States, with data sharing accelerating in the summer, documents show.

The data included in Project Nightingale covers laboratory results, physician diagnoses and hospital records, among other categories, and equals a complete health history, including patient names and dates of birth.

Neither patients nor doctors were notified. At least 1

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

Some Ascension staff raised questions about how data is collected and shared, both technologically and ethically, according to people familiar with the project. But personal data protection experts said that seemed permissible under federal law. This law, 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 fulfill its health functions. " ] Google in this case uses the data, in part, to design new software, backed by advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning, which resets individual patients to propose changes to their care. Staff throughout

Alphabet incl.,

Google's parent has access to patient information, documents show, including some Google Brain staff, a research department credited with some of the company's biggest breakthroughs.

In a press release issued after the journal article was published, the companies said the project complies with federal health law and includes healthy data protection for patients.

Tech giants like Amazon and Apple are expanding their business to include electronic health records – which contain data on diagnoses, prescriptions and other medical information. This creates both opportunities and fosters privacy concerns. Here's what to know. Photo Composite: Heather Seidel / Wall Street Journal

Google Cloud President Tariq Shaukat said in a message that the company's goal at health centers is "ultimately to improve results, reduce costs and save lives."

"As the health environment continues to we need to transform quickly to better meet the needs and expectations of those we serve, as well as our own care and healthcare providers, "says Eduardo Conrado, Ascension's Executive Vice President.

Google and the nonprofit Ascension have parallel financial motives. Google has hired dozens of Project Nightingale engineers so far without charging for the work because it hopes to use the framework to sell similar products to other healthcare systems. Its ultimate goal is to create a multifunctional search tool that collects different patient data and hosts it in one place, the documents show.

The project is being developed in a Google cloud unit that tracks competitors like Amazon and Microsoft in market share. Google CEO

Sundar Pichai

He has said many times this year that finding new growth areas for the cloud is a priority.

The Ascension, a Catholic chain of 2,600 hospitals, physicians' offices and other establishments, aims in part to improve patient care. He also hopes to dig up data to identify additional tests that may be needed or other ways the system can generate more patient revenue, documents show. Ascension is also eager for a faster system than its existing decentralized electronic record keeping network.

Google, like many of its Silicon Valley peers, has sometimes criticized it for not doing enough to protect consumer privacy. His YouTube department agreed in September to pay $ 170 million in fines and made changes to his practices in response to complaints that he had illegally collected child data to sell ads. YouTube has neither acknowledged nor denied wrongdoing.

Last year, The Wall Street Journal reported that Google was hiding a flaw that revealed hundreds of thousands of birthdays, contact information, and other subscribers' personal information on its already defunct Google Plus social networking site, partly because of fears that the incident could to trigger regulatory scrutiny. At a time when Google was exceeding legal requirements for not informing users, Google said

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Since then, the attention of regulators has come into force. Federal and state investigators announced separate antitrust polls over the summer. The federal probe checks whether Google's existing information gathered from its leading search engine, home speakers, free email service and many other weapons is giving the company an unfair advantage over its competitors, people familiar with the matter say.

Google stated that its products increase consumer choice and that it is committed to cooperating on inquiries. Mr Pichai launched a new privacy protection for billions of Google users this year.

Last week, the company announced a $ 2.1 billion deal for a wearable fitness manufacturer

Fitbit Inc.,

which makes watches and bracelets that track health information such as heart rate. Both politicians were quick to criticize the deal; Reporter David Tsitsilin (D., RI), chairman of the Chamber's antitrust management subcommittee, warned that the Fitbit deal would give Google "an in-depth look at Americans' most sensitive information."

The companies said they would be transparent to any Fitbit data they collect.

Project Nightingale seems broader than other incursions Google has made in healthcare data. In September, Google announced a 10-year deal with the Mayo Clinic to store genetic, medical and financial records of the hospital system. At the time, Mayo officials stated that any data used to develop new software would be deprived of any information that could identify individual patients before being shared with the technology giant.

Google was founded to organize information in the world, and health has been a fascination with its top executives since the early days. Google Health, an innovative effort to digitize existing medical records, was discontinued in 2011 after three years of limited acceptance. Since then, Alphabet has poured millions of dollars into its divisions Calico and Verily, which aim to combat aging and to deal with diseases accordingly.

Co-founder of Google

Larry Page,

in a 2014 interview, suggested that patients worried about privacy are too cautious. Mr Page said: "We don't really think about the great good that can come from people sharing information with the right people in the right ways."

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

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