Facebook began talking to hospitals last year about the possibility of matching profiles of anonymous users with health data in an effort to improve medical care, according to a CNBC report that exposes the program. Facebook confirmed its work to CNBC, but said it had "paused" the program last month, presumably after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, to focus on "doing a better job of protecting people's data" and being clearer about how it is used
The plan was to get hospitals to share anonymous medical information (such as health problems and age, but not name) and match it with anonymous Facebook accounts that seemed to belong to those same people, according to the report. Then, somehow, I would use the knowledge of Facebook behavior of users to inform medical treatments. In an example given by CNBC, it says that Facebook could have determined that an elderly user did not have many local friends, so a hospital could send a nurse to review them while recovering from surgery.
"The project will not try to provide health recommendations for specific people."
In a statement to CNBC, Facebook said: "This work has not progressed beyond the planning phase, and we have not received, shared or analyzed anyone's data."
Although the report makes it sound like the data would be customized for specific patients, Facebook said in an email to The Verge that, instead, it would be used more generally. "The project will not try to provide health recommendations for specific people," a spokesperson said. "Instead, the focus would be on producing general ideas that would help medical professionals take into account the social connection as they develop treatment or intervention programs for their patients."
This was probably not a great idea, even without the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal that engulfed the company. Basically, Facebook proposed to collect medical data without the users' permission, and then secretly link them to their profiles. That is a huge violation of privacy.
Although Facebook was reviewing medical channels to receive the data, it was in talks with organizations such as Stanford Medical School and the American College of Cardiology, according to CNBC, it sounded as if patients had not had to consent to sharing their information.
Facebook tells us that there would have been no "data anonymization" and that access to the data "would theoretically be limited to selected people from Facebook and our medical research partners at [American College of Cardiology]."
Here is the explanation that Facebook gave to CNBC for its motivation behind this program:
"The medical industry has long understood that there are general health benefits to a close circle of family and friends, but more in-depth research is needed to help medical professionals develop specific treatment and intervention plans. Take into account the social connection With this in mind, last year Facebook started discussions … to explore whether scientific research using anonymous Facebook data could help the medical community advance our understanding in this area. "
Cathy Gates, interim executive director of the American College of Cardiology, also gave a statement to CNBC, adding: "This partnership is in the early stages as we work on both sides to ensure privacy, transparency and scientific rigor" .
Facebook had initially focused its research on cardiovascular health. None of the statements makes it appear that Facebook is ending the program. Any medical organization that has been in talks with Facebook would be wise to carefully consider the privacy scandal that continues to affect the company.