Facebook sent a cardiologist to several major U.S. hospitals to pitch a scheme that would combine a patient's medical file with user data collected by the beleaguered social media giant, in order to "figure out which patients might need special care or treatment," reports CNBC.
The program, which "never progressed passed the planning phase" according to Facebook, was put on pause after the Cambridge Analytica data harvesting scandal raised concerns over the company's policies governing data collection and use.
Facebook's pitch, according to two people who heard it and one who is familiar with the project, was to combine what a health system knows about its patients (such as: person has heart disease, is age 50, takes 2 medications and made 3 trips to the hospital this year) with what Facebook knows (such as: user is age 50, married with 3 kids, English isn't a primary language, actively engages with the community by sending a lot of messages). -CNBC
Recently as last month, however, Facebook was discussing the program with several health organizations - including Stanford Medical School and American College of Cardiology.
The company says that the shared data would have personally identifiable information obscured - such as a patient's name, and that they were thinking of using a technique known as "hashing" to match an individual's medical data to their social media information.
Facebook said on Wednesday that as many as 87 million users were affected by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and that "most" of their 2.2 billion users were exposed to potential data scraping by "malicious actors."
The project to share medical-related data was led by Freddy Abnousi, an interventional cardiologist whose role is described on LinkedIn as "leading top-secret projects." The program operated out of Facebook's "Building 8," an experimental projects group headed by Regina Dugan prior to her October 2017 departure.
The collaboration between Facebook and Hospitals would figure out if a user's combined information could improve patient care - for example, if an elderly patient doesn't have nearby close friends or much community support, the Facebook program might decide to send a nurse over to check in after a medical procedure.
Of course, no word on whether this data would be then sold - perhaps to insurance companies, or whether Facebook would use patient data to better "microtarget" patients with relevant advertisements for pharmaceuticals used to treat various conditions.
Cathleen Gates, interim CEO of the American College of Cardiology, explained the benefits of the plan in a quote provided by Facebook:
"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 American College of Cardiology 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 #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."
Due to state and federal patient privacy laws such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), health systems are notoriously cautious about sharing patient health information.
The "hashing" technique Facebook reportedly proposed is a common cryptographic technique which could be used to match patient data to social media information - allowing the program to operate while obscuring personally identifiable information.
That said, the issue of patient consent didn't come up in any of the early discussions of the program, reports an individual familiar with the program via CNBC - and Facebook has notoriously done research on users without their permission.
Notably, in 2014, Facebook manipulated hundreds of thousands of people's news feeds to study whether certain types of content made people happier or sadder. Facebook later apologized for the study.
Health policy experts say that this health initiative would be problematic if Facebook did not think through the privacy implications. -CNBC
"Consumers wouldn't have assumed their data would be used in this way," said Aneesh Chopra, president of a health software company specializing in patient data called CareJourney and the former White House chief technology officer.
"If Facebook moves ahead (with its plans), I would be wary of efforts that repurpose user data without explicit consent."
Facebook told CNBC the following about the program:
"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."
No word on whether Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital has been involved in the program following the Facebook CEO's $75 million donation.