Facebook backs off its creepy plans to secretly access private medical records and match the data to user profiles

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Facebook has been in talks with high profile US hospitals in an attempt to obtain patient data about illnesses and prescriptions.

  • Project aimed to build profiles that combined user’s medical and Facebook data 
  • This would help hospitals work out which patients might need special care
  • The project was being led by a Stanford cardiologist called Freddy Abnousi 
  • The proposal has been paused following the Cambridge Analytical scandal
  • Although the data would obscure identifiable information, they could have been identified by combining data sets

By Phoebe Weston

Facebook has been in talks with high profile US hospitals in an attempt to obtain patient data about illnesses and prescriptions.

The project was being led by a Stanford cardiologist called Freddy Abnousi who claims to lead ‘top-secret projects’ on his LinkedIn.

The project aimed to build profiles of people that combined their medical conditions – gathered from the hospitals – and their social and economic status – gleaned from their information on Facebook.

According to the company, the goal was to match this medical data and Facebook user data in order to help hospitals work out which patients might need special care.

However, the creepy proposal has been put on pause after the Cambridge Analytical scandal raised concerns about how much data the company takes from users.

Although the data would obscure identifiable information such as the patient’s name, the company could have used a technique called ‘hashing’ to match individuals in both sets, according to a report by CNBC.

This means individuals could have been identified if they appeared in both sets.

The company claims this information could help hospitals provide better care.

For example, if someone is elderly and does not have friends or family living nearby (information that can be obtained from Facebook), doctors could send over a nurse to check on them after serious surgery.

However, experts have raised privacy concerns about this latest plan.

‘Consumers wouldn’t have assumed their data would be used in this way,’ said Aneesh Chopra, president of a health software company called CareJourney.

Just last month, the company was in talks with Stanford Medical School and American College of Cardiology about potentially sharing and analysing their data.

‘For the first time in history, people are sharing information about themselves online in ways that may help determine how to improve their health’, according to a quote provided by Facebook on behalf of Cathleen Gates, interim CEO of the American College of Cardiology.

She said the partnership looked ‘to further scientific research on the ways social media can aid in the prevention and treatment of heart disease’.

The company assures the project – which has now been suspended – would only have been used for medical research.

The company assures the project - which has now been suspended - would only have been used for medical research (stock image)

The company assures the project – which has now been suspended – would only have been used for medical research

In a statement the company said the aim was to do further research into how ‘medical professionals develop specific treatment and intervention plans that take social connection into account.’

‘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’, a Facebook spokesperson told MailOnline.

‘This work has not progressed past the planning phase, and we have not received, shared, or analysed anyone’s data,’ the spokesperson said.

 

The company has been criticised in the past for carrying out research on users without permission, notably in 2014 when they manipulated people’s news feeds to work out if specific content made people happy or sad.

This latest scandal has again raised concerns about quite how much data the company has about its users.

This issue has been in the public eye after reports Cambridge Analytica improperly received information about Facebook users. 

Earlier this week it was revealed the company’s misuse of personal information was even worse than first thought.

According to the CTO, most of the affected users were in the United States, as shown in the graph above

According to the CTO, most of the affected users were in the United States, as shown in the graph above

 

On Wednesday, Chief Technology Office Mike Schroepfer revealed the firm shared data of up to 87 million users – a dramatic increase from initial media estimates of roughly 50 million.

Schroepfer shared the new figures in a blog post outlining nine changes the firm is making to the platform in light of the massive data scandal that unfolded last month.

According to the CTO, most of the affected users were in the United States.

In the post, the Facebook exec also revealed the troubling ease with which ‘malicious actors’ could ‘scrape’ public information from most users’ profiles.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg addressed the growing scandal in a media call on Wednesday afternoon, admitting the firm ‘didn’t do enough’ to protect user data or to prevent the spread of disinformation.

In a call with reporters, Zuckerberg admitted the firm made a ‘huge mistake’ in failing to take a broad enough view of what Facebook’s responsibility is in the world.

‘It’s my mistake,’ the Facebook CEO added.

Referring to the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal, in which a consultancy firm was able to access millions of users’ data and use it to target voters during political campaigns, he said that it isn’t enough for Facebook to believe app developers when they say they follow the rules.

He says Facebook has to ensure they do.

‘Life is learning from mistakes,’ Zuckerberg told reporters, according to CNET.

‘At the end of the day, this is my responsibility. I started this place, I run it, I’m responsible.’

‘We know now we didn’t do enough to focus on preventing abuse and thinking through how people use these tools to do harm,’ the Facebook CEO added.

Now, as the company looks forward, Zuckerberg said the firm must address Facebook’s role in democracy.

‘It’s not enough to give people a voice, we have to make sure that people are not using that voice to spread disinformation,’ Zuckerberg said, according to CNET.

While Facebook grapples with the unfolding data scandal, more and more worrying details continue to emerge.

The latest indicates the issue, which Zuckerberg himself called a ‘breach of trust,’ affected many more users than initially suspected.

‘In total, we believe the Facebook information of up to 87 million people — mostly in the US — may have been improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica,’ Schroepfer said on Wednesday.

London-based Cambridge Analytica, which has counted US President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign among its clients, disputed Facebook’s estimate of affected users.

It said in a statement on Wednesday that it received no more than 30 million records from a researcher it hired to collect data about people on Facebook.

In Facebook’s blog post, Schroepfer shed light on additional ways ‘malicious actors’ could access users’ data without their knowledge, by scraping public information from profiles.0

On Wednesday, Chief Technology Office Mike Schroepfer (pictured) revealed the firm shared data of up to 87 million users with the political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica – a dramatic increase from initial media estimates of roughly 50 million

On Wednesday, Chief Technology Office Mike Schroepfer (pictured) revealed the firm shared data of up to 87 million users with the political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica – a dramatic increase from initial media estimates of roughly 50 million

Starting Monday, April 9, Facebook will begin showing users a link at the top of their News Feed to more easily reveal the apps they use (as shown above)

Starting Monday, April 9, Facebook will begin showing users a link at the top of their News Feed to more easily reveal the apps they use (as shown above)

The site previously allowed users to enter someone’s phone number or email address into the search bar to locate that person.

While the tool was helpful for finding friends in some scenarios, for example, in languages which ‘take more effort to type out a full name,’ the firm says it was also regularly abused.

As a result, Facebook is now doing away with it entirely.

‘Given the scale and sophistication of the activity we’ve seen, we believe most people on Facebook could have had their public profile scraped in this way,’ Schroepfer wrote.

‘So we have now disabled this feature.

‘We’re also making changes to account recovery to reduce the risk of scraping as well.’

This article (Facebook sent a doctor on ‘top-secret’ missions to obtain medical data) was originally published on Daily Mail and syndicated by The Event Chronicle.

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