How Google's Alphabet Reorg Could Affect Its Health Data

Newly Separate Sibling Companies May Be Less Likely to Share

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Credit: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
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As speculation swirls about Google's restructuring under its new Alphabet umbrella, one thing seems like a safe bet: The company may have made it more difficult to spread its wealth of data from entity to entity. Privacy watchers suggest that outcome may have been intended, particularly when involving health data.

Google has kept well-known web services like Gmail, Google Search and YouTube in the reorganization, allowing data sharing among them to remain intact, but separated businesses such as X, which pursues futuristic innovations like driverless cars and Glass, into separate Google siblings within Alphabet. The connected home company, Nest, is another new division of Alphabet, broken out from Google.

Of special interest to observers clued into privacy issues, however, were the breakouts Life Sciences, the health research operation, and Calico, which conducts research aiming to slow the aging process.

"They're very clear that health is one of the things they're segregating," said Tim Libert, senior fellow in Information Controls at the Open Technology Fund and a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania. "I have very highly guarded optimism here."

He speculated that the new delineations will prevent Google from joining its email and browsing history data to the health-related information that the now-separated firms handle, calling it a "big benefit to users."

It's not clear whether Google planned to join those data sets in any way, but now concerns that they might have employed some health data for use by its other businesses have subsided. Google declined to comment about data sharing within Alphabet.

It's also unclear whether some types of data might still be shared in anonymized or aggregated forms.

Some medical and health data collected by Google, such as information captured by Google fitness tracking technology Fit, is not protected under HIPAA guidelines established by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. But that could change, said Fatemeh Khatibloo, a Forrester analyst and self-described privacy wonk. The prospect of tighter U.S. and E.U. privacy regulations may have made the separation of entities handling health data all the more enticing, she suggested.

If HIPAA rules are updated to cover fitness tracking data, for example, a still-whole Google might have had to exert a lot of energy undoing integrations already in place. "Google needs to be able to turn on a dime," said Ms. Khatibloo.