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Google’s do-good arm tries to make up for everything else

Official inquiry opened on Project Nightingale deal with Ascension

FILE - In this Sept. 24, 2019, file photo a sign is shown on a Google building at their campus in Mountain View, Calif. Google plans offer checking accounts run by Citigroup and a credit union, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)
FILE - In this Sept. 24, 2019, file photo a sign is shown on a Google building at their campus in Mountain View, Calif. Google plans offer checking accounts run by Citigroup and a credit union, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File) (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

PARIS – Google’s head of philanthropy says the company is having “a lot of conversations” internally amid worries about the tech giant’s bottomless appetite for consumer data and how it uses its algorithms.

Vice President Jacqueline Fuller wouldn’t comment on specific data privacy controversies dogging Google lately, but says she shares other concerns many have about Big Tech. Cyberbullying. Hate speech amplified online. The impact of artificial intelligence on everything, from jobs to warfare.

“As a consumer myself, as part of the general public, as a mother, it’s very important to understand ... what am I seeing, what are my children seeing,” she said in an interview with The Associated Press in Paris, where she announced new grant winners Tuesday for projects aimed at teaching digital skills to poor, immigrant, rural or elderly users.

The philanthropic arm she runs, Google.org, is like the company’s conscience, spending $100 million a year on non-profit groups that use technology to try to counteract problems the tech world is accused of creating, abetting or exacerbating.

“Across the world we want to make sure we’re a responsible citizen,” she said.

But can Google’s do-good arm make up for everything else?

At least it’s trying, she argues.

“The company is having a lot of conversations around things like access to information and access to data and making sure there’s no algorithmic bias,” she said.

Project Nightingale

Some lawmakers are demanding answers as to why patients were not made aware that tens of millions of patients’ personal data was moved to a Google Cloud. It’s part of Project Nightingale, a project between Google and Ascension that integrates health data into the Cloud.

Companies reportedly did not disclose the merger with patients first. Ascension says that’s not the case.

“Ascension’s work with Google has been anything but secret. In fact, Google first announced its work with us in July, on its Q2 earnings call,” said Eduardo Conrado, Ascension’s executive vice president.

The Department of Health and Human Services opened an official inquiry demanding answers.

Gary Roberts, a licensed Jacksonville pharmacist, said he doesn’t believe patients have much to be concerned about. He believes many hospital will eventually move their information to a cloud like Google.

“One of the biggest problems we have in healthcare is the transfer of information and accuracy of information, when a patient is in the hospital to when they go to another facility. They go home and then they go to their pharmacy but some of that information is lost in translation sometimes, and that’s where a lot of medication errors occur,” Roberts said.

Ascension said it will have a hotline number for patients with questions about the data move. To date, the number has not been released.

Dominating the search market

Public outrage has grown over Google’s use of consumer data and domination of the online search market, with governments stepping up scrutiny of the company.

Just in the past week, nine groups called for the U.S. government to block Google’s $2.1 billion acquisition of fitness-gadget maker Fitbit, citing privacy and antitrust concerns. Then Google came under fire for a partnership with U.S. health care system Ascension that the Wall Street Journal says gives the search giant access to thousands of patient health records without doctors’ knowledge. Both companies say the deal is compliant with health-privacy law.

Fuller wouldn’t comment specifically on either case, but said, “We take our users’ trust very seriously.”

She also insisted that the company has a very “vibrant discussion” internally about sexual misconduct, human rights and other problems that have tarnished Google’s reputation.

Its philanthropic arm is focused lately on using artificial intelligence to help society, for example by providing better access to health care and more effective emergency services. It’s also working on ways to limit the damage of the breakneck developments of AI, notably after employee departures and public pressure over a Pentagon contract pushed the company to pledge it wouldn’t use AI in weapons development.

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