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The latest in a long line of privacy scandals happened last week, after Google was found to have been pulling unredacted data from one of America's largest healthcare providers to use in one of its projects. Despite assurances that it won't use this information to supplant its ad business, that's not the issue here. How was Google able to acquire this knowledge in the first place?
Professor Sandra Wachter is an expert in law, data and AI at the University of Oxford's Internet Institute. She says that every time your data is collected, "you leave something of yourself behind." She added that anyone can use your online behavior to "infer very sensitive things about you," like your ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and health status.
It's bad enough when the companies use those inferences for targeted ads. But it gets a lot worse when they gain access to very private data. For instance, would you feel comfortable if Google started displaying ads for fertility treatments in your emails after a trip to the doctor? Or if your healthcare provider could access your browser history without your knowledge to determine how suitable you are for insurance.
Last week, we heard that Google has pulled vast amounts of unredacted and unanonymized data from healthcare provider Ascension. The files included test results, diagnoses and hospitalization records from tens of millions of patients.
These, Google said, were made available for researchers inside its Project Nightingale team as part of plans to build software that might help improve software in healthcare environments. It also said that access to the records were tightly controlled and only accessible by staffers who had been vetted by Ascension. That hasn't stopped Congress and the Department of Health and Human Services from opening an investigation.
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