Lawyer raises Google Health confidentiality risk

Google has given privacy undertakings for personal information entrusted to its Google Health service, but its involvement may nonetheless legally compromise patient-doctor confidentiality, says Australian lawyer, author and blogger Kim Sbarcea.

Last year Google started exploring management of medical information with clinics in the US. A patient can have information about themselves sent to their Google record and access it from anywhere.

"But as a lawyer, I would ask whether privilege might be disturbed," Sbarcea told BrightStar's information management seminar in Wellington last month, in an address entitled "The googlisation of everything". Information passed between a doctor and a patient is privileged. If a third party like Google becomes involved, then the information might lose that privilege and be able to be subpoenaed or accessed more easily, she says.

A Google Health record is bundled with a Gmail account -- potentially easing patient-doctor communication -- but Google should be asked about its access to that communication and how the information might be used, Sbarcea says.

"I'm not saying they will use it wrongly, but the questions should be asked," she says.

A Sydney-based Google spokesperson notes the debate is academic at present for Australia and New Zealand, since Google Health is currently only available to US residents. "Our goal is to put patients in control of their health information," says Google. "Google Health users decide what information to store in their account and choose who can view or edit their profile.

"While we're always looking to extend our products and services to users worldwide, in the case of Google Health there are very different rules and regulations concerning privacy and the ways personal health data and electronic medical records are stored in countries outside of the US. This will not be a hasty process," the representative says.

Google has brought a lot of creativity into the world and a number of useful applications, Sbarcea says, "but we need to ask some very serious questions on its privacy practices.

"This is going to be the tension, the struggle of the future. How do we keep our information free, fluid and emergent and at the same time allow Facebook and Google to use this content in some capacity without us compromising our rights to the content."

When Facebook changed its terms of service recently to allow itself to use individuals' posted content even after they had deleted their accounts, there was a storm of protest. The objectors joined together and created a Facebook group called "Facebook Bill of Rights and Responsibilities". This is a new and positive development, says Sbarcea; the objectors have not just registered their annoyance, but indicated their interest in having a dialogue with the company.

There is a disturbing degree of credulity towards results found through Google, she says. Its news aggregator, Google News, last year propagated an undated story that caused some mainstream media to report a bankruptcy arrangement at United Airlines as recent, when it was actually six years ago and had long been discharged. The company's shares were seriously affected.

Sbarces says she has had professional people seriously suggest they dispense with their company library because "it's all on Google" -- implying that whatever is found on Google is as trustworthy as something that has been under the critical eye of a publisher and a professional librarian.

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