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05/01/2017 / By Jayson Veley
When you stop and take time to think about it, it’s incredible how much personal information is collected from us on a day-to-day basis. In the middle of most American cities, you would be hard-pressed to walk even one hundred feet without seeing a traffic camera watching your every move. Certain types of televisions and smartphones now have the ability to collect images we view, audio, and even personal text messages. (Related: Read about the different ways you can stop your phone from spying on you.) But now, Google seems to have taken things to the next level by seeking out intimate knowledge on medical conditions and your physical health. That’s right – it’s not enough to know about your interests and search habits; Google wants information on your body.
The Baseline Project is a multi-year study that will ask volunteers to submit an egregious amount of physical test results and medical information. The project, which is expected to cost more than $100 million, will look for information regarding the warning signs of heart disease and cancer by having volunteers wear a heart-tracking watch on their wrists. The watch will track the volunteer’s pulse and movements in real time. In addition, the project participants will undergo x-rays and heart scans, have their genomes deciphered and blood tested.
Even though Google will only monitor each volunteer for four years, the entire experiment may very well take a decade to complete, considering the fact that the project will examine a total of 10,000 participants.
Sanjiv Sam Gambhir, a physician researcher at Stanford University explained, “No one has done this kind of deep dive on so many individuals. This depth has never been attempted.” Gambhir added, “It’s to enable generations to come to mine it, to ask questions, without presupposing what the questions are.”
The Baseline Project was officially announced in 2014, but the study was so complicated that it took an additional two and a half years to organize.
“We need to continue to look for signals that may be actionable,” said Verily’s chief medical officer Jessica Mega. Verily is a branch of Google that focuses on health and the study of life sciences. “And we need to build out infrastructure to be able to do that,” Mega continued. “Those tools will be important for the health-care ecosystem. We are creating the infrastructure to deal with large health data sets.”
In addition to the monitoring of the participants’ heart rates and medical conditions, the study also requires volunteers to provide stool samples, saliva, and tears. As if this wasn’t enough, participants must sleep with an electrical loop underneath their mattress to record their sleep patterns. The data collected from this electrical loop would then be transmitted to a separate device inside of the participant’s home, which would then be sent to Google’s servers.
While Google seems to have the details of the study all planned out and ready to go, Eric Heckler, a professor at Arizona State University, has his doubts. “The question is why should people continue to give you data,” he says. “People wear a wrist tracker for a few months, but even the burden of charging one will make them stop. There is a lot of hounding involved.”
Professor Heckler raises a very important point. Considering how long each of the volunteers will be monitored, and considering how much work they will have to do on their own time in order to continue sending information to Google’s servers, the chances that the information will remain accurate are extremely slim.
Thus far, Google has not provided any information regarding how specifically the collected information will be used, nor have they explained how they plan on ensuring that the medical information remains safe.
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