Health privacy advocates worry DeepMind will break its promise not to share health data with Google, but the company says nothing is changing

Key Points
  • DeepMind Health will be absorbed into Google Health, the newly-formed subsidiary led by former hospital executive David Feinberg.
  • DeepMind has stressed that it will not share sensitive health information with its parent company. And a spokesperson said that won't change in the wake of the re-org. 
  • But critics are concerned about this growing relationship between the two companies.
Dr. Dominic King
Source: DeepMind

DeepMind, the Alphabet subsidiary focused on health and AI, announced in a company blog post on Tuesday that its health group will be absorbed by Google. That news comes just days after Google disclosed plans to form a new, centralized health unit at its Silicon Valley, California headquarters led by David Feinberg, a physician and former hospital executive.

As part of the move, Google will now manage the Streams app that DeepMind created. Streams is a tool to help doctors and nurses figure out which of their patients are at increased risk for acute kidney injury. It does that by analyzing patient information and sending an alert to a clinician's phone to let them know that they're urgently needed.

The move concerns some privacy advocates, as DeepMind had previously promised not to share data with its parent company.

"Data collected by DeepMind Health will never be connected to Google accounts or services," the company said in a  previous statement, which some privacy advocates are recirculating on Twitter:

Julia Powles, a research fellow at NYU Law, tweeted "DeepMind repeatedly, unconditionally promised to never connect people's intimate, identifiable health data to Google. This isn't transparency, it's trust demolition."

In an interview with CNBC on Tuesday, DeepMind stressed that it still won't be sharing health information with Google.

A spokesperson said that DeepMind's work with the NHS will not be impacted. "We're fully committed to all our NHS partners, and to delivering on our current projects and more," they said. Under Google Health, the team will continue to work closely with the NHS and "information governance and safety remain our top priorities," the person explained.

DeepMind also reiterated that patient data would remain under the control of these partners. They also said that the data will continue to be subject to "strict audit and access controls and its processing remains subject to both our contracts and data protection legislation."

Ultimately, they said, "the move to Google does not affect this."

DeepMind has been criticized in the past for how its approach to managing health data. In particular, privacy advocates have raised concerns about the issue of consent and whether DeepMind should have asked patients for access to their clinical data.

These questions came up as the company began to work with doctors and nurses to get its Streams app into U.K. hospitals.

To bolster transparency in response to these concerns, DeepMind held regular patient forums in its native U.K. and set up an independent review panel of British physicians, academics and policymakers. That panel could now be disbanded, although no final decision has been made, according to a person familiar with the situation.

Powles, the technology law researcher, remains unconvinced.

"There is nothing more precious and intimate than our personal health information," she said, referring to DeepMind's statement as a "diversionary" tactic. "At what point do we say enough is enough?"