Facebook has been working on a secret project that asked hospitals to share anonymized patient data, according to a report from CNBC. The endeavor was run by Building 8, the branch of Facebook involved with long-term experimental projects.
The idea behind the venture, according to sources who spoke with CNBC, was to blend hospital data with social data. The Facebook data, which would highlight users’ social ties and loved ones, could theoretically inform medical professionals about best-care practices. “The project would then figure out if this combined information could improve patient care,” per the report.
Still, this project raises a bunch of privacy concerns. Though Facebook asked for the data to be anonymized, it reportedly wanted to implement cryptographic techniques that would allow the researchers to match data sets. This project would essentially hand Facebook even more personal data, this time containing personal health-related information.
A Facebook spokesperson provided Fast Company with this statement:
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.
With this in mind, last year Facebook began discussions with leading medical institutions, including the American College of Cardiology and the Stanford University School of Medicine, to explore whether scientific research using anonymized Facebook data could help the medical community advance our understanding in this area. This work has not progressed past the planning phase, and we have not received, shared, or analyzed anyone’s data.
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.
Facebook has been embroiled in a huge privacy controversy since revelations that Cambridge Analytica harvested millions of users’ data. It seems that Facebook made the (probably correct) calculation that asking health professionals to hand over patient data probably wasn’t the best move for the time being.
Still, it seems like the project could be revived sometime in the future. You can read the full CNBC report here.