NHS patient information illegally shared with Google DeepMind

Mustafa Suleyman DeepMind

In a keenly anticipated ruling, the ICO announced today that the Royal Free NHS Foundation Trust failed to comply with the Data Protection Act when it provided details on 1.6m patients to Google DeepMind.

A United Kingdom hospital did not do enough to protect the privacy of patients when it shared data with Google, the UK's Information Commission (ICO) has ruled. "A patient presenting at accident and emergency within the last five years to receive treatment or a person who engages with radiology services and who has had little or no prior engagement with the Trust would not reasonably expect their data to be accessible to a third party for the testing of a new mobile application, however positive the aims of that application may be", the office said in its findings.

The Trust's failure to alert patients broke another principle that states data should be processed "in accordance with the rights of data subjects".

The contract was always clear that no private data would ever be shared with DeepMind's parent company Google, which bought the firm in 2014.

As part of the deal between the Trust and Google, the internet giant gained access to sensitive patient information such as HIV status, mental health history and abortions.

In a blog post by the ICO, the watchdog stated that in the rush to innovate, institutions like the Royal Free Trust should not forget to follow the law.

The ICO began investigating the partnership back in May, following at least one complaint from the general public. "The price of innovation didn't need to be the erosion of legally ensured fundamental privacy rights".

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), which is the U.K.'s data protection watchdog, launched its probe into the DeepMind-NHS deal in May 2016.

DeepMind Streams app
The Streams app

In a blog post on DeepMind's website, Mustafa Suleyman, co-founder and head of applied AI and Dominic King, clinical lead, said "in our determination to achieve quick impact when this work started in 2015, we underestimated the complexity of the NHS and of the rules around patient data, as well as the potential fears about a well-known tech company working in health". "We got that wrong, and we need to do better", the company added. Results from those reviews are yet to be published.

Deals are now in place with University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust and Taunton and Somerset NHS Trust.

The agreement between the NHS Trust and DeepMind was first scrutinised by the New Scientist in April 2016, where the full scale of information sharing was revealed.

The app has been used since February 2017 and the Trust says the trial has saved staff time.

If the Trust complies with the ICO's demands, then the Streams apps will not be shut down. The NHS Trust will also need to commission an audit of the trial to be shared with the ICO.

The regulator's investigations are yet to finish. Google said the Streams app developed as part of the research was able to save nurses several hours a day processing test results and detected serious kidney issues faster than the traditional process would have allowed.

The ICO declared that a deal between the two organisations that saw the transfer of 1.6 million patient records to DeepMind without patient knowledge or approval was deemed to be a breach of the Data Protection Act.

"The audit scope should assess both the current live clinical use of the Streams application and any future application development and functional testing and clinical safety testing that in either case is either planned or already in process".

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