Google has recently announced that it will be embarking on its first voyage into the world of healthcare. The company’s health spinout Verily describes ‘Project Baseline’ – the survey in question – as “an effort to map human health”.

The health study wants 10,000 people to take part, which will include wearing heart rate monitors, sleeping monitors, and your bog-standard text-based surveys. Participants will report to either Duke, Stanford, Google, or a private clinic in LA every year for a series of blood tests, genome scans and imaging sessions. The claim is that the new data will provide them with brand-new information on the causes of certain diseases, how to combat them, and how to create a healthier society in general.

you’re not only the customer, you’re also their product.

The lingering question, however, is simply who it will benefit? Will it be you, the person who amasses the data? Google, who will be behind the survey and collects the data? Or will it be a third party? And, on top of all that, what is the actual purpose of this project?

Now, we should not forget that large health studies have, in the past, revolutionised medicine. The Framingham Heart Study, which was established in 1948 in the eponymous Massachusetts town, established that smoking, high blood pressure and a lack of exercise could lead to heart and lung problems. 5,209 people, a number that later expanded to their children and grandchildren, were subject to biannual medical examinations to establish these conclusions.

Likewise, the Nurses Health Study, established in 1976, has examined the effects of diet and physical activity of health in over a quarter of a million people, and has allowed us to better understand the connections between affliction, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer, and ones lifestyle.

These studies, however, anonymised the data that they collected. The participants were de-identified and their name was wiped from the board. The only data that was collected for long-term use was the stuff that mattered – blood glucose levels, heart rate, etc. Their name and address were long-gone.

Its a beats per minute wave that has some how created the shape of a heart in it's oscillations
Heart Shaped BPM trace. Source: pixabay

Today, it’s a little harder to remain anonymous. Because of overlaps in voter registration and census data, alongside ones personal health record, coders are often able to quickly de-anonymise data in a matter of minutes. Great news for those who want to monetise your data, but bad news for the individual.

By signing up to Baseline, you sign a consent form. You’ll consent to them using your anonymised data for research. Perhaps, further down, there’ll be a section that consents them to use your data in sales to clients of both the commercial and academic strands. You’ll also notice that you’ll be signing up to Baseline with your Google account. Thankfully, it’s unlikely that Baseline and Google will sync your genetic data with your gmail account. The Baseline FAQ, however, says that participants will get to see some of the data (think the results of lab experiments and surveys, and, perhaps, a few collective results).

According to the backstory, Stanford and Duke will be the first to receive the data, before it’s opened up to other medical researchers two years later. It’s a form of longitude dataset, a deep dive into the habits and lifestyles of a population the size of which has never been collected before. It explains why Alphabet – the company that was Google but now owns Google – is involved.

It’s the most powerful data brand on the planet, and one of the few with the resources and know-how to make the project a success. Regardless of the government cash flow, they’d need somebody who knew how to collate the data. The interactivity between participants and internet is not only recommendable in this case, it is, for them, essential.

it’s unlikely that Baseline and Google will sync your genetic data with your gmail account.

However, Alphabet remains a for-profit company. It’s a commercial entity. It would like something to make a profit of, something to sell. Last year, Alphabet’s DeepMind partnered up with our NHS to share the collected data in exchange for an app and AI Brainpower to treat acute kidney injuries. DeepMind, however, were unable to get full consent for data sharing, and it remains unclear what the long-term intent is. The current hypothesis is that Alphabet wants to look at this modem for a while, before it sinks its teeth into that.

The interesting thing is that Google has every chance of buggering this up. The US National Children’s Study, a long-term initiative that was designed to follow the progress of 100,000 children for 21 years, fell to pieces at the fifteenth and $1.3 billion in, thanks to confused goals. Verily/Alphabet/Google has no long-term goal in this sense. We have no idea what it’s meant to do. There is no research point, or aim, it’s simply a ruddy large survey. One that will have your biodata on file for years to come.

Wandering eyes in the o's of the google logo
Google watching you. Source: flickr

Still want to get involved? Actually, you probably still do. After all, you’re not only the customer, you’re also their product.


For more stuff by Theo click below or if you want to read more about what google are doing check out this old article about Google Cardboard.

bookmark me
Online Editor, Philosophy Student, terrible musician.