Facebook has been looking to collect patient data and profile information from a number of major hospitals in the United States for a proposed research project.
The invasive study, however, has been postponed in the midst of the recent data scandal having to do with Facebook’s corroboration with Cambridge Analytica using info from the social media giant’s users.
Confidential information no more …
Personal data regarding patient illnesses and prescription information is being pursued by Facebook.
“Facebook sent a doctor on a secret mission to ask hospitals to share patient data,” CNBC.com reported. “Facebook was in talks with top hospitals and other medical groups as recently as last month about a proposal to share data about the social networks of their most vulnerable patients.”
The medical data-mining project was devised to work in unison with information Facebook had already extracted from its users.
“The idea was to build profiles of people that included their medical conditions, information that health systems have, as well as social and economic factors gleaned from Facebook,” CNBC.com’s Christina Farr explained. “Facebook was intending to match it up with user data it had collected, and help the hospitals figure out which patients might need special care or treatment.”
Yet, with Facebook’s recent breach of its customers’ trust by compromising their personal information, it is putting its latest medical research endeavor on hold.
“[The project is on hiatus so we can focus on] other important work, including doing a better job of protecting people's data," a Facebook representative told CNBC.com.
It appears, however, that the recent scandal did little to deter Facebook from moving forward with the controversial project in recent weeks.
“But, as recently as last month, the company was talking to several health organizations – including Stanford Medical School and American College of Cardiology – about signing the data-sharing agreement,” Farr noted. “While the data shared would obscure personally identifiable information – such as the patient's name – Facebook proposed using a common computer science technique called ‘hashing’ to match individuals who existed in both sets. Facebook says the data would have been used only for research conducted by the medical community.”
Facebook claims that the data it is seeking would work to improve Americans’ health and the efficiency of the health care system to better meet patients’ needs.
“[T]he data would supposedly be used to help hospitals decide if certain patients might need special care or treatment, according to [CNBC.com’s] report,” TheBlaze reported. “For example, Facebook would use profile information to determine if a patient is isolated and lacks a support system. If so, a hospital employee could check in on that person following a major surgery.”
Helping out or snooping around?
Facebook’s attempt to extract confidential patient medical information from hospitals was supposedly intended to make progress in the field of cardiology.
“The exploratory effort to share medical-related data was led by an interventional cardiologist called Freddy Abnousi, who describes his role on LinkedIn as ‘leading top-secret projects,’" Farr informed. “It was under the purview of Regina Dugan, the head of Facebook's ‘Building 8’ experiment projects group, before she left in October 2017.”
The California-based social media company insisted that its research will help Americans fight heart disease.
“Facebook's pitch – according to two people who heard it and one who is familiar with the project – was to combine what a health system knows about its patients (such as: person has heart disease, is age 50, takes 2 medications and made 3 trips to the hospital this year) with what Facebook knows (such as: user is age 50, married with 3 kids, English isn't a primary language, actively engages with the community by sending a lot of messages),” Farr pointed out. “The project would then figure out if this combined information could improve patient care, initially with a focus on cardiovascular health – for instance, if Facebook could determine that an elderly patient doesn't have many nearby close friends or much community support, the health system might decide to send over a nurse to check in after a major surgery.”
American College of Cardiology CEO Cathleen Gates heralded the medical plan’s potential benefits.
"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 stated in a quote provided by Facebook that was obtained by CNBC.com “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 anonymized Facebook data, coupled with anonymized 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.”
She went on to assure that the privacy of patients will not be breached by Facebook or hospitals as the project moves forward.
“This partnership is in the very early phases as we work on both sides to ensure privacy, transparency and scientific rigor,” Gates insisted. “No data has been shared between any parties."
Extra precautions and existing preventative measures were said to ensure that personal information would not be compromised in the endeavor – by hospitals or Facebook.
“Health systems are notoriously careful about sharing patient health information, in part because of state and federal patient privacy laws that are designed to ensure that people's sensitive medical information doesn't end up in the wrong hands,” Gates impressed. “To address these privacy laws and concerns, Facebook proposed to obscure personally identifiable information, such as names, in the data being shared by both sides.”
Facebook’s medical data-mining research project comes at a time when it has come under high scrutiny about the massive amount of data the social media giant collects about millions of its users – information that can be utilized by Facebook and numerous other companies in many ways … unbeknownst to its users.
“Facebook believes the data of up to 87 million people was improperly shared with the political consultancy Cambridge Analytica - many more than previously disclosed,” BBC.com recently divulged.
Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg finally admitted at a press conference last week that he was under the false assumption that if Facebook gave its users tools, they were primarily responsible for their decision how to use them.
"Clearly, we should have done more, and we will going forward," Zuckerberg assured, according to BBC. “[It was] wrong, in retrospect, [to have had such a limited view]. Today, given what we know... I think we understand that we need to take a broader view of our responsibility. That we're not just building tools, but that we need to take full responsibility for the outcomes of how people use those tools as well."
According to Facebook’s leader, a new problem has been discovered through an internal audit.
“Malicious actors had been abusing a feature that let users search for one another by typing in email addresses or phone numbers into Facebook's search box,” BBC announced. “As a result, many people's public profile information had been ‘scraped’ and matched to the contact details, which had been obtained from elsewhere. Facebook has now blocked the facility.”
The social media guru admitted that Facebook users’ personal information was likely breached if they did not customize their settings when using the popular social media platform.
"It is reasonable to expect that if you had that [default] setting turned on, that in the last several years, someone has probably accessed your public information in this way," Zuckerberg warned, according to BBC.