Facebook Puts Health Research Project on Hold Amid Privacy Concerns

Facebook has decided to pause a patient data harvesting program it says was intended to help connect doctors with patients in need of specialized care.

The decision, announced Thursday, comes amid increasing criticism regarding the Cambridge Analytica data leak scandal.

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The health research project, led by Stanford cardiologist Freddy Abnousi, aimed to combine anonymized medical data (provided by hospitals) with socioeconomic data (available on Facebook) to build profiles of people that would be used to improve treatment and care.

Facebook had planned to use a technique called “hashing” to match individuals in both sets. Patient names and other identifiable information would have been obscured, but left open to re-identification. Patient consent was not a factor in early discussions.

“The process would not attempt to provide health recommendations for specific people,” a spokesperson told The Verge. “Instead, the focus would be on processing general insights that would help medical professionals take social connectedness into account as they develop treatment or intervention programs for their patients.”

Facebook spoke with major hospitals and medical groups about the project as recently as last month, but decided to halt the program after the Cambridge Analytica incident raised public concerns about the network’s ability to protect the personal data of its users.

“For the first time in history, people are sharing information about themselves online in ways that may help determine how to improve their health,” says Cathleen Gates, CEO of the American College of Cardiology.

That may be true, but the implications for personal privacy are staggering.

As former White House CTO and health policy expert Aneesh Chopra points out, Facebook’s health program could have created serious problems if there was a breakdown in the privacy of the information. “Consumers wouldn’t have assumed their data would be used in this way. If Facebook moves ahead [with its plans], I would be wary of efforts that repurpose user data without explicit consent.”

Instead of poking its nose into your medical history, Facebook will now focus on “other important work” such as “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.”

Author’s Note: the collection of private medical data is completely inappropriate for a social media network, but the real problem here lies with hospitals – which do not have the right to share that kind of data.

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