January 31, 2018

Search engine giant Google, with its saturation of the global market at 77.43 percent (the nearest competitor, Baidu, has a measly 8.13 percent market share), is on the fast track toward a monopoly of dissemination and distribution of data. 

But Google’s growth doesn’t stop at internet search. Its parent company, Alphabet Inc., is the driving force behind Nest smart home products; Google Fiber, a high-speed internet and television provider; Sidewalk Labs, a company created to improve cities through technology; Calico, an enterprise focused on fighting age-related diseases; and Jigsaw, an entity that seeks to tackle geopolitical problems like online censorship through technology. These are just examples; Alphabet Inc. has merged with or acquired nearly 200 companies since 2001 and invested in hundreds more.

The company’s far-reaching interests, coupled with its ability to exert power over consumer search, has often fallen afoul of antitrust regulations. Just this year it was fined an incredible $2.7 billion by the European Union’s antitrust chief, Margrethe Vestager, for favoring its own products in search results over the products of competitors. Earlier, it was sued by social media site Gab.ai for similar discrimination practices involved the Google App Store and in April of this year, it was fined $8 million in an antitrust case involving the Russian mobile applications market.

But while consumer and political attention is drawn to Alphabet/Google’s antitrust woes, a more alarming threat is quietly looming: Google’s access to personal data.

The company’s extensive reach has given it access to the personal data of literally billions of people, and Google’s not shy about using it. This year, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood sued the company for tracking and sharing the data of students through its free tool, G Suite for Education, a service used by tens of millions of students across the globe.

In addition, the company has begun to use its extensive collection of credit card transaction records to track how consumers are making purchases, both on and offline. Alarmingly, the data is connected with the real-world identities of users, making privacy a serious concern.

But perhaps the most onerous sign of Google’s increasing intrusiveness is its continuing foray into health care. After the centralized health information service known as Google Health, in conjunction with partners like CVS Caremark, drugs.com and Medco Health Solutions, failed in 2011, the conglomerate has been seeking a new footing in the health care industry arena.

Tech-Driven Health Data

Programs like Project Baseline, operating through Verily, a company owned by Alphabet, are a prime example. This project has participants wearing a special watch for a study that collects various health information like heart rate, electrical conductance of the skin and electrocardiograms in an effort to collect biomarkers on participants as they move from health to illness. However, participants are not allowed access to their own data. Not surprisingly, the watch will be used in other health-related studies aimed at tracking participants 24 hours a day. Even less surprising is the fact that Verily has partnered with companies to develop health products for sale to doctors and consumers.

And as if it isn’t enough that the company can track willing study participants, Google’s access to patient health data is, on occasion, aided by government entities. In July 2017, the UK daily news source The Guardian reported that Google’s DeepMind artificial intelligence company received 1.6 million patient-identifiable records from the Royal Free London NHS Trust to test a new health alert app called Streams. This transfer breached patient confidentiality and other data protection principles, and Google admitted to using real patient data to test the app, exposing confidential health information.

A New Attack on Health Privacy

And now, Google’s discovered an insidious new way to get your health data: Through a partnership with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). The two entities have combined forces to ensure when an individual types “depression” or “clinical depression” into the Google browser, a box at the top of their screen will advise them to “check if you’re clinically depressed.” Interested individuals would click the link to be taken to a quick quiz designed to test for depression. There’s a problem inherent in a test given by a company who has an interest in selling health care products: conflict of interest. For example, a similar test offered through WebMD several years ago counseled all participating individuals they were at risk for depression and should consult a medical professional, regardless of how the test was completed. Later, it was discovered that the WebMD test was sponsored by Cymbalta, the manufacturer of medication to treat depression.

According to a 2009 New York Times story, almost 75 percent of the organization’s funding came from pharmaceutical companies, nearly $23 million in just over three years’ time. Worse yet, it appears that the drug industry has propped up and funded several groups allegedly dedicated to patient’s rights. These groups, like NAMI and Alliance for Patient Access (AfPa)often lobby for legislation that benefits the pharmaceutical companies that fund them.

The fact that Google not only owns interest in companies that deal in health care and health care products, but also has access to your search history and, through this new test, your state of mental health, is a concern. Some professionals have expressed skepticism toward Google’s new partnership with NAMI. Dr. John M. Grohol, Psy.D., an expert in online psychology and behavior, is concerned that consumers can’t take the quiz without specifically opting in to allow Google to collect answers.

Others aren’t bothered. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) blatantly endorses Google’s online depression test. That would be fine, except that AARP has been found to be secretly funding the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization that seeks to aid its major contributors, big pharmaceutical companies, through restrictions on drug price gouging and legislation that limits punitive damages to drug makers caused by their products.

Google + Drugs = Consumer Beware

It’s not the first time that Google has used its significant power to influence consumer decisions and regulations. In July 2017, the Campaign for Accountability (CfA) reported Google funded academics’ research papers that supported public policy changes advantageous to Google.

And Google has been dabbling in the drug market for several years. It’s partnered with Novartis to develop a glucose-sensing contact lens for diabetics, with AbbieVie to develop anti-aging medicines, Biogen for multiple sclerosis studies, GlaxoSmithKline to develop bioelectronic medicines and many more. The point is, Google has a stake in the drug market and in selling drugs or therapies to consumers.

The combination of data mining and Google’s vast influence and drug interests is frightening. Google is not a newcomer to using suspect practices within the drug industry. In 2014, the Justice Department forced Google to pay $500 million in fines for the illegal distribution of counterfeit drugs. Google knowingly assisted Canadian pharmacies in selling drugs without a prescription through Adwords in 27 different countries.

Besides collecting your health information for their own use, Google wants what any other data mining company wants: To sell data. Data mining services sell your information to companies to allow them to make market adjustments to sell more products. In the health care industry, data miners sell information to pharmaceutical companies so drug manufacturers can target physicians that are high-volume drug prescribers, as they would be most willing to prescribe new or improved medications. With Google entering the pharmaceuticals market through willing partnerships with manufacturers, it’s no wonder they want to get their hands on data to help them move the drugs they’re funding.

And Google is so large that it’s operating this insidious intrusion on several fronts. For example, Highmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield, one of the nation’s largest health care plans, has partnered with Quartet Health, a startup backed by GV, Google’s venture arm. Not surprisingly, Quartet will use data mining to identify patients with undiagnosed mental illness and other behavioral health conditions. Dr. Duke Ruktanonchai, Director of Behavioral Health for Highmark, said of Quartet: “They will help us figure out who is diagnosed or should be diagnosed and we will use their technology to expedite and identify who is the appropriate mental health provider. We can then give data back to the primary care provider so there is better coordination of the patient’s care.”

Besides the fact that the Google subsidiary might be diagnosing you without your consent, this Google/health provider partnership illustrates how Google is helping prompt doctors to diagnose mental illness with one arm of the company, then providing the drugs with which to treat it with the other. In addition, Google targets doctors most likely to be amenable to writing prescriptions and perhaps, down the line, sharing patient data to “improve” care.

For consumers, Google’s pervasive online and real-world presence poses a trifecta of problems in the area of health data privacy.

First, Google's data mining practices are a threat to personal privacy, particularly where sensitive health care information is concerned. In addition to their ability to track consumer activities and preferences on and offline, their partnership with doctors and medical lobbying groups is creating an online search bias that encourages consumers to seek medical and drug assistance whether or not it is needed.

Additionally, the tech giant has been caught in antitrust actions as well as other dubious practices, such as paying academics to write research papers aiming at changing public opinion and promoting policies favoring Google. In the health care political arena, this behavior can translate into strong-arming politicians to change health care and public policy to benefit Google and its health care partners rather than protecting the American public. Google is currently the highest-spending company when it comes to lobbying the Federal government, contributing more than $24 million every year in lobbying efforts.

Finally, Google is posing as a patient advocate while promoting the drugs and care plans of its partners, and, in some cases, its own companies. This is a conflict of interest of the highest magnitude.

What Can You Do?

It’s obvious that steps should be taken to preclude Google from tracking data, geolocating consumers, and selling or using personal data to benefit itself, its holding companies or business partners. It should be subject to antitrust measures, much in the same way as telecommunications giant AT&T was deregulated in the 1980s. In the meantime, consumers must take precautions to protect their personal data.

The first line of defense is always knowledge. Educate yourself on Google’s holdings, its partnerships and its subsidiaries. If you’re using Google products, consider switching. Use Hotmail, Outlook, Yahoo or another email service provider in lieu of Google’s Gmail. Drop Google Docs and choose from the many alternatives. Switch from Google or Chrome to Firefox or Safari, or, better yet, Duck Duck Go, a browser that doesn’t track or store personal information.

Finally, be politically active. Start or sign a petition aimed at controlling the growth of conglomerates like Google. Participate in online discussion, rallies and discourse with your elected officials to encourage privacy protection from data mining companies, alone or under the guise of consumer or patient advocates. Only two things can stop Google’s surveillance: Legislation and the power of the consumer to opt out of Google-controlled environments, an option that’s getting more difficult with each new acquisition by the internet monopoly.

Nikki Williams
is a bestselling author based in Houston, Texas. She writes about fact and fiction and the realms between, and her nonfiction work appears in both online and print publications around the world. Follow her on Twitter @williamsbnikki or at nbwilliamsbooks.com.