In the latest controversy for the beleaguered social network, Facebook has conceded it approached US hospitals and medical groups about the sharing of patient data for a proposed research project, which the company now claims has been paused.
The social media giant was in talks with healthcare organisations as recently as last month, negotiating to gain access to anonymised information such as patients’ diagnoses and medications.
The company planned to use “hashing" to match individuals who existed in both data sets to glean insights that would improve healthcare, initially in cardiovascular health, its pitch claimed.
"This work has not progressed past the planning phase, and we have not received, shared, or analysed anyone's data," a Facebook spokesperson told CNBC, the US media outlet that broke the story today.
Facebook was in talks with organisations including Stanford Medical School about the data-sharing project.
The company provided a statement from the interim CEO of the American College of Cardiology Cathleen Gates in support of the plan.
"For the first time in history, people are sharing information about themselves online in ways that may help determine how to improve their health,” Gates said.
“As part of its mission to transform cardiovascular care and improve heart health, the American College of Cardiology has been engaged in discussions with Facebook around the use of anonymised Facebook data, coupled with anonymised ACC data, to further scientific research on the ways social media can aid in the prevention and treatment of heart disease –the #1 cause of death in the world. This partnership is in the very early phases as we work on both sides to ensure privacy, transparency and scientific rigor. No data has been shared between any parties."
The doctor employed by Facebook to lead the talks was interventional cardiologist Freddy Abnousi, who claims he has been running "confidential projects at Facebook” since August 2016, according to his LinkedIn profile.
The news comes as Facebook VP Sheryl Sandberg said the company is still unable to confirm what happened to the data obtained by Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm hired by the Trump presidential campaign, because it needs to wait until the UK information commissioner completes an investigation.
“To this day, we still don’t know what data Cambridge Analytica have,” Sandberg said.
Cambridge Analytica improperly gained access to the data of millions of Facebook users without their permission, using it to target campaign material at American voters.
When the news of that massive breach emerged two weeks ago in the Observer, the number of those whose personal information had been taken was estimated at 50 million but this week Facebook admitted it is likely to be about 87 million.
Following this most recent revelation about Facebook’s proposed medical research project, ACC president Michael Valentine told The Guardian no data had been shared and the health group is committed the US’s strict health privacy legislation.
“We approached this research as we would any other scientific, medical, or clinical research – ensuring that the research protocol would be consistent with HIPAA regulations, the HHS Office of Human Research Protections regulations, and relevant Institutional Review Board decisions,” Valentine said in an emailed statement. “These practices are consistent with well-established norms in the scientific and medical community for safely conducting research on de-identified patient data. This commitment to privacy and complete adherence to relevant laws and regulations are why no data have been shared and all discussions are on hold.”
In response to CNBC’s queries about the healthcare data sharing discussions, Facebook said in a statement:
“Last month we decided that we should pause these discussions so we can focus on other important work, including doing a better job of protecting people’s data and being clearer with them about how that data is used in our products and services.”
Founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg is set to testify before the United States Congress next week.
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