Late last week, New Scientist broke the news that Google DeepMind’s partnership with the NHS goes far beyond what was publicly announced. This week the story has been picked up by just about every media outlet there is here in the UK.

It’s a great story, and raises a lot of interesting points:

Stethoscope on base pairs graphThe general principle here is to take in just about every bit of recordable information you can imagine, and try to apply an artificial intelligence to alert people who might be at risk of developing acute kidney injury. The health benefit is interesting enough, but the technical sorcery behind it is particularly mouth-watering. If it works out, what’s going to be next? Given the kind of data we usually talk about here on Front Line Genomics, you can’t help but feel that exciting things are coming.

The story itself, is a story. As I understand it, the agreement between Google DeepMind and the NHS is completely above board, and isn’t anything special. The NHS has about 1,500 agreements with other third party organisations. It is the standard NHS information-sharing agreement set out by NHS England’s corporate information governance department.

So why are people getting nervous? For the most part, people probably aren’t aware that their data does get shared. Now, you’re making them aware of the fact. Not only that, but you’re telling them that Google have their information. The amount of insight Google have on us from our browsing and viewing habits is either wonderfully exciting, or scary, depending on your point of view. If you’re already a bit apprehensive about the world of big data, finding out that your medical information is now part of it probably is a little scary.

This leads to a few more issues. How do you get people comfortable with this kind of activity, before it gets announced? Should people even be comfortable in the first place, or is trepidation healthy?

We know that genomic data privacy is a very sensitive issue right now, even Craig Venter would advise his younger self to be a little less free with his data (you can also take this thought provoking survey to figure out where you really stand on the matter). It’s a tough issue to deal with because we don’t know what to safeguard against, and what the future might hold. There’s a fine line to walk between advancing applied science, and being a bit too cavalier. In the purest meaning of the word, it certainly is exciting.