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June 26, 2019

UChicago and Google Sued in Federal Class Action Suit for Data Sharing


The University of Chicago and its medical center

Courtesy of University of Chicago

By Elaine Chen    and Tony Brooks  

A former patient at the University of Chicago Medical Center is suing UChicago, the medical center, and Google, accusing them of violating the privacy rights of patients at UChicago Medicine through the sharing of patient records containing identifiable information.

The class action lawsuit, filed by Matt Dinerstein in the Northern District of Illinois on Wednesday, claims that UChicago violated federal law protecting patient privacy in its partnership with Google to share records of patients from 2009 to 2016. It also claims that Google will be able to use the patient data to develop highly lucrative health-care technologies.

The suit charges that the University breached contracts between UChicago and its patients by allegedly falsely claiming to patients that it would be protecting their medical records. It also charges UChicago for violating an Illinois law dictating that companies cannot engage in deceptive practices with clients.

UChicago spokesperson Jeremy Manier said in a statement e-mailed to The Maroon, “The claims in this lawsuit are without merit. The University of Chicago Medical Center has complied with the laws and regulations applicable to patient privacy.”

“The Medical Center entered into a research partnership with Google as part of the Medical Center’s continuing efforts to improve the lives of its patients,” the statement continues. “That research partnership was appropriate and legal and the claims asserted in this case are baseless and a disservice to the Medical Center’s fundamental mission of improving the lives of its patients. The University and the Medical Center will vigorously defend this action in court.”

A Google spokesperson said in a statement e-mailed to The Maroon, “We believe our healthcare research could help save lives in the future, which is why we take privacy seriously and follow all relevant rules and regulations in our handling of health data.”

UChicago announced in 2017 that it would begin sharing electronic medical records with Google in a partnership to develop machine-learning techniques that could improve the quality of health services. At the time, UChicago said that Google would ensure that “patient data is kept private and secure,” and would be “strictly following HIPAA privacy rule.”

HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, is a federal law mandating that shared patient information must be “de-identified”—stripped of any identifying information such as addresses and photos—to protect patients’ privacy.

The complaint accuses UChicago of making insufficient efforts to scrub patient-identifying data before handing over documents.

Though UChicago and Google claim to have de-identified patients, UChicago’s inclusion of timestamps indicating when patients checked in and out of the medical center makes the records identifiable and thereby violate HIPAA, the suit alleges. It cites an article published last year by Google and researchers from collaborating universities that says, “All EHRs [medical records] were de-identified, except that dates of service were maintained in the UCM [UChicago Medicine] dataset.”

Google’s potential capability to “re-identify” patients with its advanced data mining technologies indicates that “these records were not sufficiently anonymized and put the patients’ privacy at grave risk,” the complaint claims. It notes Google’s possession of geolocation information that can “pinpoint and match exactly when certain people entered and exited the University’s hospital.”

UChicago is not the only university to share health records with Google; other universities with similar partnerships include Stanford University and the University of California, San Francisco, according to the article published by Google and collaborating researchers. Wednesday’s lawsuit rests on the fact that UChicago’s records, as obtained by Google, include timestamps of patient records.

The suit also argues that Google’s acquisition of a British startup called DeepMind in 2014 has allowed Google to possess robust machine-learning technologies that would allow Google to connect medical records to Google users’ data.

DeepMind and Google obtained health records from the British Royal Free Hospital in 2015. The project was accused by a British watchdog organization for not complying with data protection law, the suit claims.

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