Facebook's elusive Building 8 division has been involved in talks with hospitals about the possibility of sharing patient data as recently as last month, CNBC reports, citing sources close to the company and doctors who were pitched the project. The unnamed project would have effectively sought to securely give hospitals insights into patients. It appears as though the social network would have shared data pulled from an individual patient's Facebook account in an attempt to assist doctors in caring for the patients. The general idea is that information about a patient's lifestyle and support network could help hospitals determine the best treatments and support to offer. The project was only placed on hold following the recent privacy controversies, a Facebook spokesperson told CNBC, and it isn't clear whether it will be picked up again.
Since the project never really left the planning stages before being abandoned, at least for the time being, it's difficult to say exactly what that would have entailed. It is thought that the data would have been anonymized for transferal and then de-anonymized by the hospital. However, there's no way to know at this point whether Facebook would have been upfront about policies surrounding that or how consent would be obtained. Obviously, the collection and sharing of medical-related data could raise serious concerns about HIPAA rules regarding the use of patient health information. Technically, sharing could only have gone from Facebook to hospitals without violating those rules, unless express consent was given by the patients to the medical institutions or hospitals. So it's not clear what Facebook would have been getting in return for sharing the data or whether any such deal would have granted it access, deliberately or otherwise, to patient data. The most recent talks are simply described as discussions about agreements pertaining to "data sharing agreements" which took place at Stanford Medical School and the American College of Cardiology.
Of course, there could possibly have been some benefits to such an agreement, depending on patient awareness and whether or not express consent had been given. Giving medical research institutions access to anonymized daily activities of users and all of the information Facebook can easily gather could be a boon to discovering new prevention methods and other research. Beyond even that, a hospital with access to that data could possibly find more effective ways to treat a patient that may need help in getting more healthy. Not only would access to Facebook data give those healthcare officials a greater insight into patients' routines and activities but would also provide insights into a patients' support networks which could help hospitals take steps in aiding with recovery or providing extra support to patients who need it. Bearing that in mind, it would have conversely been likely to cause a massive amount of blowback due to further privacy concerns, the kind of which are already being raised around Facebook.