The Industry

Facebook Wanted to Get In on the Health Data Craze

CNBC reported Facebook wanted patient data for research. It’s another reason to push for better privacy controls, but not a reason to panic.

Photo illustration: a version of the Facebook logo superimposed on a Red Cross logo.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is headed to Congress next week to testify about the social network’s privacy practices amid ongoing revelations about the information it shared with political data firm Cambridge Analytica. Facebook’s entire business model relies on people to trust it with a wealth of personal information. Until the recent revelations, Facebook had its sights set on gaining access to even more information about some of its users. Until last month, the company was in talks with several hospitals and medical groups over a deal to share anonymized patient data with the social network, CNBC reports.

Facebook had reached out to Stanford Medical School, the American College of Cardiology, and others about a proposed data-sharing agreement that would give Facebook researchers access to data about patients’ illnesses, prescriptions, age, and the frequency they visited the hospital. Patients’ names and other identifiable information would be withheld from both parties. Facebook planned to use a hashing technique, however, to find matching individuals in both its data set and in the hospital’s. The proposed benefit of the project was better, more customized care from linking a patient’s health and social media information. For example, with a tie to Facebook’s information, the hospital could learn that a postoperative individual recovering at home doesn’t have many nearby friends or family and send a caretaker to check on them. The “issue of patient consent did not come up in the early discussions,” one person close to the matter told CNBC.

According to statements from both Facebook and the American College of Cardiology, the project never went past the planning phase. Facebook has since decided to shelve the project amid the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica and growing consumer distrust of the company.

Facebook’s decision to get involved with the health care space is in line with a broader Silicon Valley trend. Health care is a $3 trillion industry, and startups, established tech giants, and venture capitalists alike have realized there’s profit to be mined from the field. A number of startups have developed mobile health products to give people more control over their health: AliveCor, for example, makes EKG monitors you can attach to a phone or wear on your wrist; Abbott makes a relatively inexpensive flash glucose-monitoring system for diabetics; and Qardio makes a wireless scale, blood pressure monitor, and medical-grade ECG machine for comprehensive health and weight management.

Both Apple and Google have expansive health studies under their respective umbrellas. Apple’s focuses on heart health using data voluntarily gleaned from Apple Watch wearers, and Google’s is a broader study using the daily habits of millions to establish a baseline of what leads to a long and healthy life. The end goal of many of these endeavors is preventative care—that by empowering people with data about their health they can better manage chronic conditions and identify the signs of developing illness before it becomes serious. However, in selling products, data, and care, there’s money to be made, too.

Speaking at a panel at the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos, SAP CEO Bill McDermott said that the future of health care “is all about the precision of personalization”—and that’s where Facebook saw itself tying into the health industry. Facebook has a wealth of extremely detailed information about its users—that’s why its advertising platform is so effective and valuable, and the questions raised about user permissions after the Cambridge Analytica scandal are so important. Facebook could offer that data to health care providers to help deliver more personalized care to patients. However, to avoid a snafu like Cambridge Analytica or its poorly received 2014 psychological study, Facebook would need explicit consent from participants in such a program in order to protect patients’ data and offer transparency about how patient treatment could differ from the norm.

With the vast amount of information Facebook has on its users and the overarching trends of the technology sector, it’s not surprising that the company was looking to embark on a research partnership in the health care industry. Given the right security measures and privacy policies in place, it could be on par with Apple’s Heart Study or Google’s Project Baseline. While its current swath of policy changes and increased transparency is a potentially good first step, Facebook needs to rebuild trust with its users, continue to rethink its data-sharing policies and—before it even thinks of embarking in a program using such sensitive information as health data—ensure that even stricter consent and security policies are in place.