Facebook halts hospital data project amid Cambridge Analytica scandal: 6 things to know

Julie Spitzer - Print  | 

Over the past few months, Facebook asked several large U.S. hospitals to share anonymized patient data for a research project in which it would match patient data with Facebook data to help the hospitals determine which patients require extra care. However, the social network has since pumped the brakes on the effort to focus on  "other important work, including doing a better job of protecting people's data," CNBC reports.

Facebook has been facing heightened scrutiny over its data practices after reports revealed political research firm Cambridge Analytica harvested the information of nearly 87 million Facebook users' profiles. Since the news broke, the public has expressed concerns with how Facebook collects and shares its users' information — convincing the social network to freeze its proposed work with hospitals.

Here are six things to know.

1. Facebook had been trying to get healthcare organizations — including Stanford  (Calif.) Medical School and Washington, D.C.-based American College of Cardiology — to sign a data sharing agreement in which hospitals or other healthcare organizations would give Facebook access to deidentified patient data. Facebook would then use a cryptographic technique called hashing to match data with information from their Facebook profiles.

2. The goal was to combine the health information hospitals know about their patients with the social and economic data Facebook knows about them. Then, connections could be drawn to improve patient care.

3. The data and insights gleamed would only be used from research conducted by the medical community, Facebook said, according to CNBC.

4. The proposed project was set to initially focus on cardiovascular health, and Cathleen Gates, COO of ACC, said the project showed promise.

"For the first time in history, people are sharing information about themselves online in ways that may help determine how to improve their health. As part of its mission to transform cardiovascular care and improve heart health, the [ACC] 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 [No.] 1 cause of death in the world. This partnership is in the very early phases as we work on both sides to ensure privacy, transparency and scientific rigor. No data has been shared between any parties," Ms. Gates said in a statement provided to CNBC by Facebook.

5. Patient consent was not discussed in these early planning stages, sources told CNBC.

6. Facebook told CNBC it has paused the exploratory effort to focus on increased transparency surrounding its data collection methods.

"The medical industry has long understood that there are general health benefits to having a close-knit circle of family and friends. But deeper research into this link is needed to help medical professionals develop specific treatment and intervention plans that take social connection into account," the company said. "Last month we decided that we should pause these discussions so we can focus on other important work, including 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."

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