Facebook presses ‘pause’ on medical data sharing plan

Facebook halts plans to combine patient data from US hospitals with information on them from their social networking activity in the wake of recent privacy debacle.

Facebook has scrapped plans to gather personal data from patients in US hospitals as part of a proposed research project, in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

The social network confirmed that the idea had been discussed to collect patient data from hospitals and match it up with its users’ information – but that it had been “paused” while the company dealt with its privacy crisis. It also verified that it had been in contact with “several major US hospitals” as part of now-cancelled plans to combine patients’ anonymised information for a research project.

The plan would have seen health organisations hand over patient information with key details, such as the patient’s age, prescription and number of hospital visits and link it to their Facebook data. The research project would then determine whether the combined data could improve patient care. The setup would have “obscured” any personal information but also sought to match individuals via hashed names located in both datasets.

For example, the Facebook data might reveal that a patient did not have many friends or did not receive many messages, so might need a nurse to visit them at home. It might also reveal that a patient did not speak English as their first language, which would help the hospital plan the person’s care.

In a statement provided to US news station CNBC, a spokesperson from the America College of Cardiology said it had been “engaged in discussions with Facebook” concerning the use of anonymised data to further scientific research.

“The medical industry has long understood that there are general health benefits to having a close-knit circle of family and friends,” Facebook said in a statement. “But deeper research into this link is needed to help medical professionals develop specific treatment and intervention plans that take social connection into account.”

Facebook said the work had “not progressed past the planning phase” and said it had “not received, shared or analysed anyone’s data".

A spokesperson for the firm said, “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.”

Facebook has faced scrutiny since it was exposed that the data of millions of people was improperly shared with the political consultancy Cambridge Analytica.

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